The Common Good

Deconstructing voter choices: Catholics differ little from others

Date: November 17, 2006
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Much ado has been made of the supposed shift of "religious" voters to Democrats in the midterm election.

Exit polls showed that more Catholics and more frequent churchgoers in general voted for Democrats in the 2006 election than voted for Democrats in the 2004 election. News stories and press releases in the first few days after the election touted "Catholic voters abandon Republicans," and "God gap narrows."

But when compared to how voters as a whole cast their ballots this year, the much-vaunted statistics that supposedly show dramatic shifts by Catholics and regular worshippers of any faith lose their distinctiveness.

Catholics and regular churchgoers pretty much voted like the overall majority of the country in supporting more Democratic candidates, said John Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Enough voters shifted their support to Democrats this year to swing majority power to the party in both the House and the Senate for the first time in 12 years.

Comparing exit-poll results of how people voted in House races, the only races common to all states, Green told Catholic News Service that the country as a whole was 4 percent to 5 percent more likely to vote for Democrats this November.

Fifty percent of white Catholics, the common breakout used by pollsters, voted for Democrats, compared to 48 percent who voted for Republicans. In 2004 congressional races, 45 percent of white Catholics and of voters overall voted for Democrats in House races, Green said.

Tom Perriello, a co-founder of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, told CNS that efforts by the Democratic Party to reach out to Catholics, especially in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia, states with close, key Senate races, seem to have succeeded.

The "life does not end at birth" campaign that his organization started in 2004 was successful at persuading evangelicals as well as Catholics to consider voting on a broader basis than just abortion, Perriello said.

Perriello is optimistic about that success meaning the end of the sense that Democratic candidates must support abortion "rights" to get anywhere within the party.

In Pennsylvania, the Democratic Party supported Bob Casey Jr. from the start of his campaign, even to the point of discouraging other Democrats from running in the primary. Like the Republican incumbent he defeated, Sen. Rick Santorum, Casey is a Catholic who opposes abortion, which didn't sit well with some segments of the Democratic Party's base.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners and author of "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It," said at a Nov. 15 teleconference hosted by the Catholic Alliance and the organization Faith In Public Life that the Pennsylvania election helps neutralize abortion as a litmus test issue for Democrats.

"With two Catholic, pro-life candidates it took both abortion and religion off the table and let economic justice and poverty get back on the table," Wallis said.

Green said Casey's success shows what was considered an experiment by the Democratic Party can work, but it remains to be seen whether the approach is viable for the long term.

Among Hispanic voters, support for Democratic candidates is the norm, but even that was stronger this election. Seventy-three percent of Hispanics voted for Democrats for House seats, according to the National Election Pool, an exit poll for a consortium of news outlets. In the 2004 presidential race, 53 percent of Hispanics voted for the Democratic candidate and 29 percent voted for the Republican candidate, The Wall Street Journal reported. In the last midterm election in 2002, 38 percent of Hispanic voters chose the Republican candidate.

At a Nov. 14 discussion about the election hosted by the New Democratic Network, Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza said the November races brought out a record percentage of Latino voters, 8 percent. Hispanics account for 8.6 percent of registered voters and 14.5 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Munoz said that as in every election the issues of greatest concern to Latino voters were education, the economy and, this time, the war in Iraq. But immigration was a driving force for many Hispanic voters.

Munoz said 30 percent of Hispanic voters said they either participated in the immigration rallies and marches of the spring or are close to someone else who did so. Almost half of the youngest voters said they had joined the rallies or marches, she said.

"We exploded the myth that only illegal immigrants care about immigration," Munoz said.

That notion "insulted people," she said, and led to what she said was the backfiring of attempts by some Republicans to draw out their core voters by emphasizing a tough approach on illegal immigration. In many states incumbent Republicans who emphasized their opposition to comprehensive immigration reform lost to Democrats who advocated a broader approach.

At the same briefing, pollster Sergio Bendixen said the election exploded three myths about Hispanic voters:

-- That they don't vote.

-- That they are a swing vote that might readily go for either Republicans or Democrats.

-- That Hispanic voters are nearly all U.S.-born and therefore less likely to care about problems affecting new immigrants.

Bendixen said 19 percent of voters in California this year were Hispanic and half of those were born in Latin America. The national debate about immigration over the last year and the inconclusive efforts in Congress to tackle illegal immigration were a key to drawing out Hispanic voters.

He agreed with Munoz that the war and economic issues were more important to Hispanic voters, but immigration was a strong factor in getting people to the polls.

"It wasn't about policy but about what being a Hispanic in America means," Bendixen said. "It was very personal."