The Protestant and Catholic Vote

by Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup Poll Managing Editor

Religion will surely figure prominently in the 2004 presidential election. The Democratic Party is poised to nominate John Kerry for president, making him the first Roman Catholic major party nominee since the Democrats nominated John F. Kennedy in 1960. Some Catholic leaders have openly expressed disagreement with Kerry's position on a few social issues -- most notably abortion -- and have suggested he be denied Communion when he attends church because of his views on such issues. Kerry's rival, President George W. Bush, is a Protestant who credits his faith with straightening out his life. One of Bush's major initiatives as president has been to provide government funds to faith-based organizations.  

Gallup polling data allow for a look at the levels of support for the two candidates among members of the Catholic and Protestant faiths. Overall, recent polls have shown the race remains tight -- in combined data from two Gallup Polls* conducted May 21-23 and June 3-6, 49% of all registered voters say they support Kerry, and 45% Bush. 

However, the two major religious groups show divergent patterns of support. Among Catholic registered voters, Kerry leads 50% to 42%. But among Protestant registered voters, Bush leads 52% to 43%. Bush's lead is even larger among white Protestant registered voters (58% to 38%), since blacks -- most of whom are Protestant -- vote overwhelmingly Democratic regardless of their religious affiliation.

As the election has become more competitive overall, so has the vote among the major religious groups. In fact, a comparison with Gallup's January poll results shows a decided shift in the Catholic vote. In January, Bush led among Catholic registered voters by a 56% to 42% margin, compared with Kerry's 50% to 42% edge today, a total net shift of 22 percentage points in the lead**. 

As is the case today, Bush also led among Protestant registered voters (54% to 42%) and among white Protestant registered voters (61% to 35%) in January, but by greater margins than he currently does.    

Strength of Faith

It is fair to assume that the ability of faith to influence voting preference depends upon how closely voters hold their religious beliefs. For both Catholic registered voters and especially Protestant voters, the data suggest that those who attend church on a somewhat regular basis (at least once a month) are more likely to support Bush than those who attend less frequently.

Among churchgoing Protestants, 56% favor Bush and 38% Kerry -- that 18-point gap is significantly greater than the 9-point gap among all Protestant registered voters. The gap is even larger among Protestants who attend church on a weekly basis. Among churchgoing Catholics, 49% support Kerry and 43% support Bush -- a six-point advantage that is slightly smaller than his eight-point edge among all Catholics. 

The vote choice they face could very well present cross-pressures for practicing Catholics. Catholics as a whole overwhelmingly voted for Kennedy, but moral issues such as abortion and homosexuality were less salient in 1960 than they are today. In fact, Bush's positions on those issues are much more in line with the doctrine of the Catholic Church than Kerry's are. So while having a president who is a member of their church may appeal to Catholics, it may require voting for a candidate whose views on issues may not coincide with their own. Nevertheless, the current data suggest Kerry is appealing to more Catholics than not -- including those who practice their faith regularly.

Catholics as a Swing Group

Political analysts will certainly continue to monitor Catholics' voting preferences. Catholics constitute about a quarter of Americans, and are a key swing group in national politics. As a group, Catholics have supported the candidate who won the popular vote in the last eight elections, according to Gallup's final pre-election polls. Prior to the 1972 election, Catholics were a reliably Democratic voting bloc. Catholics supported the Democratic candidate in all elections from 1952 through 1968, even in the 1956 Dwight Eisenhower landslide win over Adlai Stevenson. 

Vote for President by Religious Affiliation, Gallup Poll Final Pre-Election Polls

Election

Protestant

Catholic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rep

Dem

Ind

Rep

Dem

Ind

 

%

%

%

%

%

%

1952

63

37

--

44

56

--

1956

63

37

--

49

51

--

1960

62

38

--

22

78

--

1964

45

55

--

24

76

--

1968

49

35

16

33

59

8

1972

70

30

--

52

48

--

1976

53

46

--

41

57

--

1980

54

39

6

47

46

6

1984

61

39

--

61

39

--

1988

58

42

--

51

49

--

1992

41

41

18

35

47

18

1996

50

44

6

35

55

10

2000

55

42

3

46

52

2

Kerry's current eight-point lead among Catholics compares favorably with Al Gore's six-point advantage in 2000, but is smaller than Bill Clinton's double-digit leads among Catholics in both 1992 and 1996. It seems Kerry is unlikely to approach Kennedy's 56-point advantage among Catholics in the 1960 election. 

Protestants have been consistent supporters of Republican presidential candidates. Since 1952, they have given greater support to the Republican candidate in every election except two -- the 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide win over Barry Goldwater, and the 1992 election in which Protestants voted about equally for Clinton and the elder George Bush. 

Bottom Line

As the campaign wears on, both candidates will surely target Catholic voters, given their status as a key swing group and the fact that they make up a sizable proportion of the population in key swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New Hampshire. Bush's pro-religion messages will surely help to solidify his appeal among more conservative Protestants, while trying to peel Catholic support away from Kerry.    

*Results for May and June are based on combined data from national Gallup Polls conducted May 21-23 and June 3-6, consisting of interviews with 2,002 adults, 18 and older, including 999 Protestants and 504 Catholics. 

The maximum margin of sampling error for the entire sample of 1,779 registered voters is ±3 percentage points. For the 925 Protestant registered voters it is ± 3 percentage points and for the 454 Catholic registered voters it is ±5 percentage points.

**Results for January data are based on combined data from national Gallup polls conducted Jan. 9-11 and Jan. 29-Feb. 1, consisting of interviews with 2,004 adults, 18 and older, including 1,008 Protestants and 581 Catholics. 

The maximum margin of sampling error for the entire sample of 1,769 registered voters is ±3 percentage points.  For the 918 Protestant registered voters it is ±3 percentage points and for the 425 Catholic registered voters it is ±5 percentage points.
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