(Cue: audible sigh) Hunting for 'Catholic voters,' again

The myth of the "Catholic voter" lives on and on and for perfectly logical reasons, even though use of this term adds next to nothing of our understanding of public life in America today. To understand the power of this vague and largely meaningless term, check out the top of this recent NPR piece:

Since 1972, every single presidential candidate who has won the popular vote has also won the Catholic vote. But with Catholics making up one in every four voters, pinning down what exactly the Catholic vote is becomes tricky.

Catholics no longer reliably vote for any one party, but historically, they have voted Democratic.

Catholics no longer reliably vote for any one party, in large part, because there is no one, united body of Catholic believers in America -- with "Catholic" being defined in terms of faith, practice and doctrine. If there is no one Catholic faith, in the pews, then there is no one Catholic vote in voting booths.

To write about the "Catholic vote" today, one must take seriously the doctrinal conflicts between Catholics and, especially, their commitment to the practice of their faith and participation in the Sacraments. At the bare minimum, journalists have to take into account the whole "pew gap" factor, as well as differences between white Catholics and Latinos.

Want to break some ground in a poll? Find out if Latinos who attend Mass once a week or more (and perhaps go to regular Confession) vote differently from Latinos who do not.

Meanwhile, we continue to see plenty of mainstream journalists (this is from a short Religion News Service piece, as carried in The Washington Post) using language such as this:

President Obama’s support among Catholic voters has surged since June, according to a new poll, despite a summer that included the Catholic bishops’ religious freedom campaign and the naming of Rep. Paul Ryan, a Catholic, as the GOP’s vice-presidential candidate.

On June 17, Obama held a slight edge over Mitt Romney among Catholics (49-47 percent), according to the Pew Research Center. Since then, Obama has surged ahead, and now leads 54-39 percent, according to a Pew poll conducted on Sept. 16. ... Obama and Romney are essentially tied among white Catholics, which some pollsters call the ultimate swing group. ...

From June 21-July 4, the U.S. Catholic bishops held a “Fortnight for Freedom,” with Masses, prayer groups and presentations in dozens of dioceses nationwide. The campaign was directed in part against an Obama administration mandate that requires some religious institutions, such as colleges and hospitals, to provide cost-free contraception coverage to employees.

John C. Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, said Obama’s surge among Catholic voters does not mean the bishops’ campaign was ineffective. But religious freedom is not the most salient issue for Catholics during an election dominated by economic concerns, he said.

“It’s not the issue that most middle-of-the-road Catholics are responding to,” Green said.

Note, please, Green's reference to "middle-of-the-road Catholics."

Yes, it would have been great to have known how he defined that term, since no one knows more about these issues than the sage from Ohio. You can tell that the Pew people know the score, as well, since the following information shows up in a news report published in the more nuanced, niche, context of Catholic World News:

Among Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly, Romney holds a 51%-42% lead. Catholics who attend Mass “monthly” or “yearly” favor Obama by a 53%-39% advantage, while Catholics who attend Mass “seldom” or “never” back Obama by a 61%-32% margin. ...

The survey also found that white Catholics favor Obama by a 47%-46% margin.

Protestants favor Romney by a 50%-42% margin; among white evangelical Protestants, the pro-Romney advantage is 74%-19%, while the two candidates are in a 46%-46% dead heat among mainline Protestants.

The political give and take, as usual, seems to be in the tense zone between weekly Mass Catholics and monthly Mass Catholics. But why is this the case? Answer that question and you are chasing the actual Catholic votes that, as a rule, are in play election after election. That's where the story is, in the pews and, I would argue, at Communion rails. It's a story about doctrines and the wide arena of Catholic social teachings -- all of them.

Over the years, your GetReligionistas have discussed these factors in evolving language that I first heard from a veteran priest here in Washington, D.C. This language fits with the reality that I see deep in the Pew numbers year after year, with the exception of the fourth category, where the poll-slate goes blank.

Once again, these terms define Catholic voters in terms of religion, more than politics, with the emphasis on beliefs and practice:

* Ex-Catholics. While most ex-Catholics are solid for the Democrats, the large percentage that has left to join conservative Protestant churches (perhaps even many Latinos) lean to GOP.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter ... depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. These voters are regulars in the pews and may even fill leadership roles in their parishes. These are the Catholic voters that are really up for grabs, the true swing voters that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” Catholic who goes to Confession, is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but this is a very, very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Once again, I would argue that one of the most important, but least covered, stories in American life is the status of the Sacrament of Confession in Catholicism today. It's a religion story, not a political story, but this is an issue that touches many others in Catholic pews and at Catholic altar rails.

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