Fairy Tale

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fairy tale.jpegIn the current New Yorker, Peter J. Boyer offers a portrait of the religious configuration of the presidential race that is at once out of date, worthwhile, and profoundly credulous. It’s out of date because it’s effectively pre-Palin. Yes, there’s a paragraph about her selection sandwiched in near the end, but it hardly takes account of the change that has now been wrought in the race’s religious politics. Of course, that’s the way the chips fall when you try to do long-form journalism in a rapidly changing landscape. The worthwhile part is some good reporting on how Karl Rove and Deal Hudson sought to activate “traditional” Catholic voters in 2004. And then there’s the credulous part.
Boyer, who’s always been a soft touch for conservative religious spin, recounts as gospel how Rove and Hudson realized that while there is no longer a generic “Catholic vote,” there was a traditional orthodox segment that were just waiting to be enlisted in the Republican cause. And so, they went out and mobilized traditionalist Catholics, turning the Catholic presidential vote from majority Gore in 2000 to majority Bush in 2004. It’s a cool story, showing how these two boy geniuses managed to conjure up the long-awaited alliance of evangelicals and conservative Catholics. The only trouble is that it’s a fairy tale.
Yes, in 2004 Bush did win the Catholic vote that he had lost in 2000. But he won it not because of GOP inroads among traditional Catholics, but among the non-traditional ones. Let’s leave aside Latino Catholics, who always vote heavily Democratic regardless of whether they attend mass frequently or not. Dividing the other, mostly white, Catholics into those who attend at least weekly and those who attend less than weekly, we find that the former went for Bush 57-40 in 2000 and 59.9-40.1 in 2004. In other words, Bush increased his margin among those traditionalist Catholics by just 2.8 percent, or just below the 2.9 percent shift in the popular vote he achieved in the electorate as a whole. The infrequent Catholic attenders, by contrast, went for Gore in 2000 by 50-46, but shifted to Bush in 2004 by 51.4-48.6, for a swing of 6.8 percentage points, or better than twice the national rate. In sum, all of Rove and Hudson’s careful targeting of traditionalist Catholics had, relative to the rest of electorate, less than zero effect.
Footnote: See John Green’s book, The Faith Factor, p. 63, for the 2004 figures and this article by the two of us for the 2000 ones.

  • You’ve confirmed my lifelong non scientific impressions…
    Both sides of my family are Catholic, and I always had the sense that there were the conservatives, who went to Mass regularly and voted Republican, and the progressives, who went to Mass rarely if ever and voted Democrat.
    There never seemed to be much middle ground, at least not in my family.