October 28, 2016


History of ‘the Catholic vote’

In his columns that appear on page 5, Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin has taught us how we should decide whom to vote for in the coming elections. As he wrote, no candidate and no political party perfectly represent the positions of the Catholic Church. Neither he nor we are going to tell you for whom to vote.

For some of us, though, the history of the Catholic vote in the United States is fascinating. There was a time, prior to 1960, when Catholic periodicals insisted that Catholics didn’t vote as a bloc and, therefore, there really wasn’t such a thing as “the Catholic vote.” That argument fell apart in 1960 when John F. Kennedy received 80 percent of the Catholic vote. (One study showed 78 percent and another 82 percent.)

Sure, it was recognized that most Catholics happened to be Democrats. But the 1952 election hadn’t been that lopsided, when 52 percent of Catholics voted Democratic and 48 percent Republican. That obviously changed when a Catholic ran for president in 1960, and religion was an issue in the campaign.

That had been true, too, in the 1928 election when Democrat and Catholic Alfred E. “Al” Smith ran. In that election, too, 80 percent of Catholics voted for Smith. It was a bitter campaign, which revived the Ku Klux Klan, and the Catholic vote was not enough to elect Smith.

It’s not hard to see why most Catholics were Democrats back then. That started way back in the 1800s, before the birth of the Republican Party. Catholics made up a minute part of the population until the country began to experience large groups of immigrants. Many came from France after the French Revolution, but most were from Ireland and Germany, especially during the Irish potato famine in the 1840s—and they were Catholics. The U.S. Catholic population soared from 663,000 in 1840 to 3.1 million in 1860.

That frightened the anti-Catholic elements that always existed. They tried to make it difficult for Catholics to become citizens. That movement became the Nativist Party, better known as the Know Nothings because members were told, if they were asked about the party’s political platform, to say, “I know nothing.”

The Know Nothings became part of the Whig Party and a powerful political force from the 1830s to the 1850s. Anti-Catholic riots flared up in many places.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party took in the immigrants, especially the Irish refugees from the potato famine who arrived penniless and took whatever jobs they could find. Soon Irish Catholic Democratic machines dominated politics in Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Kansas City and St. Louis.

The bosses helped the poor Catholics find jobs, and picked up the tabs for doctor bills, weddings and funerals. In return, Catholic voters kept the machines in power. That continued through the first half of the 20th century and through the Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson presidencies.

Then, though, the Democratic Party turned left, notably supporting abortion rights. That happened shortly after

many Catholics took advantage of the

G.I. Bill after World War II to get a college education and join the middle class. Catholics found the Republican Party advocating the things they believed in. Many ardent Republicans today had parents or grandparents who were just as ardent Democrats.

The first Republican president to get a majority of Catholic votes was Richard Nixon in 1972. But more Catholics swung back to a Democrat in 1976 to vote for Jimmy Carter. Then it was Republican again, especially in 1984 when Ronald Reagan received 61 percent of the Catholic vote.

That was the high water mark for Republicans though, because the Democratic Party has won more Catholic votes since then. Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama all received more Catholic votes than their opponents. It was close at times, though, especially in the Dukakis-George H.W. Bush race in 1988 and the Gore-George W. Bush race in 2000—the one that required a Supreme Court decision.

So is there a Catholic vote? It appears that Catholics today vote about the same way as the rest of the population. Even when Catholic John Kerry ran, he received only 52 percent of the Catholic vote, not 80 percent as Smith and Kennedy did.

—John F. Fink

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