The 2018 Midterms & the Catholic Electorate

          As has been established many times before, there is not a Catholic vote. With the exception of the Kennedy election in 1960, the Catholic vote has been close to a 50/50 split in virtually each election previously and since. The ‘Catholic’ vote; however, is shifting because of the changing demographics of the American Catholic population. The rising number of Hispanic Catholics in the electorate, in combination with Hispanic Protestants, will soon likely be able to sway the vote towards Democratic candidates in close elections. Predictions for the 2018 midterms were that the Catholic vote would remain relatively split between Democrats and Republicans, and that is what the results showed with 50% of Catholics voting for Democratic candidates and 49% for Republicans. This is a few points gained by the Democratic Party in comparison to previous elections where the Republicans held a slight majority over the Democrats. This could be due to the increase of Latinx/Hispanic voters, although voter suppression and lack of participation is still a large issue for this population in voting. Dr. Michael Murphy, agreeing with most of our previous readings this semester, remarked how the ‘Catholic’ vote was more an illusion and a phrase thrown around rather than an actual standard with which to assess an election. The 2018 midterms were not distinct from other elections nor much different in relation to the Catholic vote.

An important point to keep in mind is that the Catholic vote is diverse. Catholic women vote differently than men, non-white Catholics have different issues of importance than white Catholics, recent immigrants versus those who have been in America for generations, Millennials versus Gen X versus baby boomers, rural Catholics and urban Catholics; the list goes on. To see election results based on religion from 2006 to 2018, click here. Women and non-white Catholics are more likely to vote Democrat than white males, as are the younger generations of Catholics. More than half of Catholics under the age of 30 are Hispanic “while whites compose over three-fourths of Catholics 65 or older”, so the demographic is changing as millennial Catholics reach voting age and exercise their civic right. This means that potentially in the future there could be a more defined ‘Catholic vote’ because the Catholic population is growing non-white and the younger generation currently leans further left than the overall Catholic vote. If voter suppression does not affect voter turnout for Hispanic and younger voters, then in the coming years, it is reasonable to predict that a higher percentage of Catholics will consistently vote Democrat over Republican.

This diagram shows the results in the House of Representatives of the 2018 midterms where the Democrats gained a majority of seats. Democrats continue to dominate in large cities and on the coasts, but they have been expanding their electorate into the Midwest and other historically conservative, Republican-voting sections of the country.
This map used the 2010 U.S. Census, there will be an updated census in 2020, to map the location of Catholics across the nation. There is a growing population of Catholics in the southwest due to immigration from Central and South America of which many countries, such as Mexico, are predominately Catholic. Analyzing this map alongside the map results of the 2018 midterm elections demonstrates the split among Catholic voters between the two major parties. In many geographical areas that contain a high Catholic population, there are a mix of Democrat and Republican wins which shows that Catholics do not strongly swing to one party or the other at this point in history. 

To my knowledge, the Catholic vote did not strongly affect the outcomes of the midterm elections. Because they voted very close to 50% Republican and 50% Democrat, as they have in the past as well, it is unlikely that their vote strongly swayed the results of the midterms. In close races such as the senate race of Kyrsten Sinema versus Martha McSally in Arizona, which is yet to be called, the Catholic vote could have made a difference as every Arizonan’s vote matters in such a close race. Unfortunately, I could not find the breakdown for the Catholic vote in the 2018 election in Arizona, but it is reasonable to predict that the majority voted for Democratic candidates, such as Kyrsten Sinema, because there is a large Hispanic population. This could have also played a role in Florida where two races are still waiting to be called following a recount. Florida also contains a large Latinx/Hispanic population which could affect those races similarly to Arizona; however, Cuban-American voters tend to vote Republican more often than other Hispanic populations, so the large population of Cubans in Florida may negatively affect the Democrats’ chances of winning the Senate seat and the governorship.

Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp who lost her re-election campaign for Senator of North Dakota.

One comment that I found interesting at the roundtable was from Dr. Amanda Bryan, associate professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago who remarked on the effect of the Supreme Court on the election. Statistics showed that the Kavanaugh hearings did make a difference in the election results; however, it negatively affected Democrats whereas it was presumed to make little difference or, if anything, benefit the Democrats running for office. Democrat incumbents such as Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota both lost their Senate re-election races partially due to their ‘no’ votes on Kavanaugh’s confirmation. This surprised me because I did not expect the confirmation battle to make a difference in voting patterns nor ultimately the outcome of an election. It also demonstrates the different issues that people vote on. For some, they may have voted against a Republican incumbent who had supported Kavanaugh and used his vote to confirm him to the Supreme Court, while other voters may have not even considered Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation against Brett Kavanaugh when casting their ballots.

The voting patterns, and issues of interest that determine voting patterns, can be critically important in order to analyze which candidates and party different age, gender, racial, and other groups are most often voting for and what issues are helping them decide that. It is well known and believed, whether true or not, that Catholics vote on abortion and other reproductive health services. Humanae Vitae clarified the Catholic Church’s anti-abortion and anti-birth control stance, so since the publication of that document, there has been a strong push by Catholic clergy and anti-legal abortion laypeople to overturn Roe v. Wade as well as to curb reproductive health rights. This has been a battle both on the ballot as well as in the courts, notably in the Supreme Court with Roe v. Wade where a Catholic judge, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., voted to legalize abortion against the direction and wishes of the Church (to read more about Justice Brennan, check out my last blog post). While it may appear logical that all Catholics would then vote for anti-abortion candidates, who are predominately Republicans, not all Catholics are anti-legal abortion nor do all Catholics consider abortion rights one of the central issues to vote on. Another subset of Catholics is those who don’t personally support abortion, but support its legalization, such as Joe Biden.

From these charts created by Pew Research Center  , it is clear that Catholics remain split on whether abortion should be legal, but there is more support for legality. This is despite pronouncements by the Bishops, different writings from the Vatican, and speeches by Pope Francis condemning abortion and equating it to murder. While Catholics likely take this into consideration, they are not pawns of the Vatican who automatically support what the Catholic clergy put out.

White Americans as a whole support abortion rights at a greater majority than Hispanic Americans, who are the second largest racial/ethnic group in America. Hispanics are fairly evenly split on the issue, so this could play a role in how they voted in the midterms and how they will vote in the future. The question is whether abortion is their most important voting issue or whether other policies, such as immigration trump abortion. In the midterms, more Hispanics voted Democrat despite most Democrats supporting legal abortion rights, so this could indicate that other issues are of greater concern to Hispanics. In this case, the opinion of Hispanic voters on abortion is not heavily influential in their voting patterns.

To more thoroughly examine Catholics’ positions on the legality of abortion, including a breakdown by race, age, income level, immigration status, mass attendance, and more, click here to analyze more charts generated by the Pew Research Center.

Senator Claire McCaskill, a Catholic, moderate Democrat, and current Senator of Missouri who lost her re-election bid this year to an anti-abortion Republican, Josh Hawley.

Dr. Michael Murphy of Loyola University Chicago spoke at the post-midterms round table on the Catholic vote and what Catholics’ place in American politics is.  He made a remark on how Catholics don’t have a home in either mainstream political party in the United States that caused me to pause. I agree with his assessment, but I would expand it further that most Americans don’t have a home in one of the major parties. Increasing partisanship has pushed the Democratic and the Republican parties further to the left and right, respectively, while many Americans remain more moderate in their beliefs than it appears. Most voters are also more willing to hold both classic conservative and liberal beliefs simultaneously. I would argue that many Protestants as well as many racial minorities do not fully support the agenda of either party; Catholics are not the only population who have to choose which issues are most important in order to choose a candidate and party to vote for. Who are individuals who are socially liberal, but economically conservative supposed to vote for? Do Catholics vote for anti-legal abortion candidates as the clergy dictates or do they vote for pro-immigration candidates based on Catholic social teaching? This is not only a debate that Catholics face, but rather one that most Americans probably struggle with each new election. To single out Catholics as lacking a home in American partisan politics is to ignore the rest of the country which is not as partisan as politicians would like to believe that they are.

To discuss the ‘Catholic vote’ is to typically narrow it down to white Catholics. In the United States in 2018, it is more productive to analyze the Catholic vote by the subsets within. Examine how Catholic women voted to see whether they vote more like the majority of American women or whether they vote more like Catholic men. Analyze whether Hispanic Catholics, who are growing to encompass the largest Catholic population in the United States, vote with white Catholics or alongside Hispanic voters from other religious backgrounds or who do not identify with a religion. It is necessary to further break the vote down to what is the country of origin and how recently did they immigrate to America. Another way to analyze the Catholic vote is to identify the top issues for all Catholics, then study what the most important issue is to Catholic women, non-white Catholics, LGBT+ Catholics, urban Catholics, and millennial Catholics. To only observe the overall trends in the Catholic vote is to miss the important diversity of Catholics in America and ignore that that diversity affects how Catholics vote just as it affects how other Americans vote. To ignore the intersectionality of Catholics is to diminish them to only their Catholic faith, and act as if they only vote according to Catholic doctrine instead of their own lived experience and their own interpretation of their religion.


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