Once upon a time, Catholics were a solid Democratic constituency, but nowadays it makes the most sense to see them simply as that religious agglomeration which most closely approximates the American voting public at large. On Tuesday, they went for Obama 54-45, very close to the 52-47 margin in the electorate as a whole. Four years ago, they went for Bush, again at almost the same rate as the entire electorate. If we separate out the white Catholics, we find a constituency somewhat more likely to vote Democratic than whites as a whole, but still leaning mildly toward the GOP. Obama cut the Republican margin among them by more than half, from 13 points in 2004 to five points (47-52). That’s a couple of points better than Gore did in 2000. White Catholics are more Democratic than whites as a whole, who went for McCain by 12 points, 55-43.
To really understand Catholic voting patterns, however, it’s useful to look some state-by-state comparisons. We’ve put together available exit poll data on Catholic voting from 2004 as well as 2008, and here are some highlights, region by region. (N.B. Not all state exit polls have results for Catholics.)
New England: In Northern New England, Obama improved over Kerry’s performance. In Southern New England, he did slightly worse, thanks to a modest decline in support from white Catholics in Connecticut.
Middle Atlantic: Obama improved on Kerry’s performance everywhere but in Pennsylvania, where he fell a few points, again because of a decline in white Catholic support. New Jersey Catholics are the most Republican-leaning in the region. Only 45 percent of them voted for Obama (including 42 percent of white Catholics).
South: There’s Catholic data only from Florida for 2008. There Obama’s Catholic/White Catholic numbers were 50/46, as compared to Kerry’s 42/40.
Southern Crossroads (TX, LA, OK, MO, AR): Obama’s Catholic numbers down in Louisiana and Missouri (other states unavailable). Only 12 percent of white Catholics in Louisiana voted for him, down from 23 percent for Kerry.
Midwest: Catholic vote for Obama up everywhere except Minnesota (50 percent to 42 percent) and, surprisingly, Illinois (56 percent to 53 percent). The biggest jump came in Indiana: 43 percent to 50 percent.
Mountain West: Numbers only from AZ and NM, where Obama’s percentage jumped 2 and 10 points respectively. His 71 percent in NM come from the huge Latino Catholic presence. The white Catholics vote for him there actually dropped from 46 percent to 42 percent.
Pacific: In California, Obama garnered 61 percent of the Catholic vote, two points less than Kerry. In Nevada, the it was 59 percent, seven points more than Kerry.
Pacific Northwest: Obama’s biggest Catholic votes: 64 percent in Oregon and 66 percent in Washington. Washington was the only state where his white Catholic vote exceeded the entire Catholic vote–68 percent. In Oregon, 62 percent of white Catholics voted for him. In both states, Kerry drew significantly smaller numbers.
What are we to conclude from all this? The main thing to say is that the Catholic vote varies from region to region more than any other major religious grouping. Nor is that merely a function of the varying proportion of Latino voters, who are one of the strongest Democratic voting blocs. As noted, on Tuesday the white Catholic vote for Obama went from 68 percent for Obama in Washington State to 12 percent in Louisiana. Otherwise, the range for white Catholics was from the low forties to the high fifties–not as dramatic but still a considerable variance. The bottom line is that the white Catholic vote is really more an average of specific ethno-regional differences than an indicator of a single religio-political sensibility.