July 23, 2015

The 2016 GOP field has a bumper crop of Catholic candidates

GOP Catholics Running for President Since 1960

Only three Roman Catholics have ever run for president on a major party ticket, and all were Democrats. But that may be about to change. So far six Catholics (including some early favorites) are running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

This bumper crop of Catholic presidential candidates comes at a time when the leadership of the Republican Party is, by many measures, becoming increasingly Catholic. For instance, the House of Representatives had 69 Catholic Republicans at the beginning of the current, 114th Congress – a group that has nearly doubled in size in the last six years and includes House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

In addition, a Roman Catholic, Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan, was the GOP’s vice presidential candidate in 2012. Ryan was only the second Catholic ever to run on the Republican ticket, the first being William Edward Miller (a New York representative who was Barry Goldwater’s running mate in 1964).

One reason there may be so many Catholic candidates this time around is that the GOP presidential field is unusually large, with 16 Republicans already declared and others likely on the way. Still, this is the biggest group of Catholic candidates ever to run; more than a third of the candidates so far declared are Catholics. In addition, two Catholic hopefuls – former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and current Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – are seen by some analysts as being among the early GOP frontrunners.

In the 2012 campaign for the Republican nomination, two of the 10 major candidates (Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum) were Catholic, as were two of the eight in 2008 (Rudy Giuliani and Keyes). The other four GOP candidates who are Catholic are Santorum, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (along with Bush, a convert to Catholicism) and former New York Gov. George Pataki.

Catholic presidential candidates used to be quite rare. With two exceptions (Wisconsin Rep. John Byrnes in 1964, and Massachusetts Governor John Volpe in 1968), all major GOP presidential candidates in the 1960s and 1970s were non-Catholics. In 1980, all eight of the major candidates were Protestant.

By the late 1980s and into the 1990s, things were changing. In 1988, there were two Catholics competing in the GOP primaries, former Secretary of State Alexander Haig and Sen. Paul Laxalt. Only one Catholic (Pat Buchanan) competed for the GOP nomination in 1992, but three Catholics vied for the top spot in 1996 (Buchanan, Bob Dornan and Alan Keyes) and then one again in 2000 (Keyes).

The current group of Catholic candidates are running at a time when Catholic voters no longer consistently favor Democrats as they have in past elections. Indeed, in recent years, Catholics have become one of the country’s swing voting groups, with presidential candidates from both parties winning majorities of Catholic voters.

At the same time, Republican candidates who are Catholic must now grapple with some of the more liberal positions being taken by their church’s leader, Pope Francis. Recently, Francis has been strongly critical of free-market capitalism and has come out in favor of taking tough new actions to fight climate change, positions that put him at odds with many in the GOP.

Historically, Catholics have run for high office more often as Democrats. In 1928, Democratic New York Gov. Al Smith became the first Catholic to run for president on a major party ticket. And in 1960, John F. Kennedy became the first, and so far only, Catholic elected president. Since then, the only other Catholic to secure a major party nomination for the nation’s highest office has been John Kerry, a Democrat who lost to incumbent George W. Bush in 2004.

Currently, only one of the five declared Democratic presidential candidates, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, is Catholic. The first-ever Catholic vice president, Democrat Joe Biden, has not yet revealed his plans for the 2016 race.

Note: This analysis counts only established Republican candidates who ran in at least some of the party’s primaries.

Topics: Elections and Campaigns, Religious Affiliation, Catholics and Catholicism, 2016 Election

  1. Photo of David Masci

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Loretta Johnson2 years ago

    Hopefully at least one of these candidates will take the time to visit the current Chaplain of the House of Representatives, Fr. Pat Conroy SJ, (the first Jesuit to hold the position)…and if we (Catholics) are lucky, maybe one of these Catholic candidates will have the good sense to get a theological advisor… so that over the course of their campaign they might actually share the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition…

  2. John Hauf2 years ago

    Of course a Catholic president would be some one who deserves much consideration .But unless he’s experienced in the political war fare that takes place in WASHINGTON HE WILL BECOME A TARGET, for all those who are corrupt . He needs a very large audience like Kennedy received ., and then he might have a chance . This is the last round up for this country to survive.

  3. Carole Winder2 years ago

    Stats interesting – however there are Catholics and then there are Catholics. Any Catholic which aligns itself to Democratic platform is definitely not a faithful Catholic. Democratic platform is pro abortion (or pro choice as they like to put it – but if one is NOT pro life then what is the choice?? but death through abortion; contraception;abortive pills; etc.) which is strictly NOT in line which Catholic teaching in fact is serious sin against God the author of life.

    1. eli2 years ago

      Could say that Republican-affiliated Catholics aren’t really Catholics, either, since they don’t care about (/loathe) the poor — poverty being an issue which, in Catholic services I attended, was talked about 1,000 times more often than abortion ever was.

      1. Ronk2 years ago

        Really? This is news to me. Could you point me to where it says on the Rebublican party’s policy statements, or even any statement by any Catholic (or even non-Catholic) Republican candidate indicating that he doesn’t care about or loathes the poor?

        I think what you mean is, many of them oppose some of the Democrats’ policies which the Democrats claim would help the poor. The Republicans oppose these policies on the grounds that (so the republicans say) the policies WON’T help the poor but will hurt them.

    2. RuthAnn2 years ago

      Voting for a candidate who promotes war and capital punishment is not being a ‘faithful’ Catholic either. Pro-life respects the dignity of all human beings – from womb to tomb. Neither party is ‘pro-life’ according to Catholic Teachings. …and “Faithful Citizen” (document put out by the USCCB) does NOT promote either party. In this document Catholics are encouraged to weigh ALL the issues that any candidate promotes, and vote for the one who most closely follows the Gospel teachings. I am anti-abortion AND pro-life — not because I’m Catholic, but because I believe that we are called to love AND to serve ALL people – the unborn, the immigrant, the outcast, the poor, the imprisoned, the homeless, the hungry, etc. I don’t think either party has it right. Perhaps Sanders is the closest to really get it, and oddly he’s the one most closely who speaks in line with Pope Francis.

      1. Catherine2 years ago

        Sanders, who is a non-practicing Jew, gets a 100 % approval rating by NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League).

  4. Marquis Witt2 years ago

    The same trend of an increased number of Catholics exists on the Supreme Court with at least a majority of five Catholics.

    1. G.Thomas2 years ago

      … and we see where that got us!

    2. Mahrt2 years ago

      Six, including Sotomayor. This does not, however, say that their Catholic faith informs their judgements. Statements by swing voter Kennedy betray an abysmal ignorance of a Catholic view objective morality.

    3. Mahrt2 years ago

      Six, including Sotomayor. This does not, however, mean that their judgments are rotted in a Catholic world-view. The arguments of Justice Kennedy betray a lack of any sense of objective morality.