Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Midterms Are a Yawn for the Catholic Vote

The race for the Senate is coming down to the wire. It is highly competitive and the outcome will likely come to define the last two years of President Obama’s term (executive orders or vetoes?). The stakes are huge and the Republicans currently hold a slight lead. But I could not be more bored.

As a political scientist who specializes in how Catholics vote and how Catholic candidates run for office and govern Election 2014 is a bit of a yawn (2016 will be entirely different among the more motivated electorate and a strong field of Catholics running for president).

There are 34 states with Senate seats up for election in 2014 but many have small Catholic populations. In some states with larger Catholic populations the race is not competitive and often does not involve a Catholic candidate. Louisiana is probably the most interesting race as it has a large and important Catholic electorate, the incumbent is Catholic, and the race is a toss up. Democrat Sen. Landrieu is among the most conservative of the Senate Democrats which is interesting as Church teachings are often more similar to what conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans would favor than more “orthodox” Democrats and Republicans (...of course even with conservative leanings some of Sen. Landrieu’s positions and votes would be clearly inconsistent with Faithful Citizenship).

Catholic voters could also be important in Iowa, Michigan, Colorado, and Kansas. None of the candidates in these races is Catholic but the middle of the country is where blue states are often red among Catholics and here Catholic votes could play an interesting role.

The table below shows the estimated number of voting eligible Catholics for Senate races (i.e., already registered or eligible to register; accounting for citizenship and criminal history estimates derived from Gallup polling and the United States Elections Project) and the percentage of eligible voters in each of these states who are Catholic. In six of the ten “toss up” states the electorates are less than 20% Catholic. Catholic candidates in these states include Democrat challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky. She, like Landrieu, is seen by many as more conservative than your typical Senate Democrat (…currently 10% of the U.S. Senate is made up of Catholic women). Incumbent Democrat Mark Begich and Republican challenger Dan Sullivan in Alaska are both Catholic but only 13% of potential voters who will choose between them share that faith.

There are 22.5 million Catholics who could possibly vote in the midterm Senate races (...of course more Catholics are in states where they will vote for House members. Republicans will maintain control of the House). That represents about 20% of the electorate in those states. In the toss up states, Catholics only make up 15% of potential voters. In a March post I predicted the “God gap” may strike back and turn the Senate red. I still think this is the case but Catholic votes would only be a small contributing cause for such a transition.

Once the exit polls are released there will likely be a discussion of who “won the Catholic vote.” If either party is claimed to have “won” the Catholic vote that answer will be wrong. More Catholics will choose “none” than either Democrat or Republican by staying home. Turnout in midterms is typically about 41% (Catholic turnout is often slightly higher).

In one of the likely scenarios approximately 9.5 million Catholics will vote in a Senate race and about 13 million who could vote for a senator will stay home. If the Catholic voters follow their partisan hearts their vote will likely split with 4.6 million going to Democrats and about the same going to Republicans. The remainder will likely vote for other party candidates or cast a ballot without making a Senate choice. Although nationally Democrats hold a slight edge in identity among Catholics, in the competitive Senate states this year there are fewer Hispanics and Democrats meaning the Catholic electorate is likely to be balanced out or even leaning red in Senate races. Depending on possible turnout differentials it could lean more heavily Republican.

The 2016 election will be a very different race. In addition to the many Catholic candidates expected to run for president, the Supreme Court will likely have handed down decisions on same-sex marriage and the contraceptive mandate. Changes to immigration policy, either through executive orders or legislation, will likely be in place. Maybe some of those Catholic candidates will even have time to talk about poverty? I bet Pope Francis hopes so.

Author’s note: I am proudly not registered to vote (...democracy works just fine without me) and I do not identify with any political party or candidate. I do not give money to candidates or parties nor involve myself in political advocacy of any kind ( I won’t sign your petition). CARA is a non-profit, non-partisan, independent research center committed to “searching dispassionately for truth.”

Baby yawning photo courtesy of Daniel James.

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