Every U.S. presidential election since 2004 has featured at least one Catholic candidate on one of the major party tickets. But if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins this November, he will be only the second Catholic ever to assume the land’s highest office – John F. Kennedy was the first with a groundbreaking win in 1960.
Biden talks openly about his personal beliefs on the campaign trail, and his faith was a central theme at the recent Democratic National Convention. Having a Catholic candidate on a party ticket, however, does not guarantee support from Catholic voters. U.S. Catholics, who make up roughly one-fifth of the population, have a diverse range of political opinions, even on topics the Catholic Church has taken a clear stance on.
Here are eight facts about Catholics and politics in the United States, based on previously published Pew Research Center studies.
See also: Like Americans overall, U.S. Catholics are sharply divided by party
U.S. Catholics are split down the middle politically. Around half of Catholic registered voters (48%) describe themselves as Republicans or say they lean toward the Republican Party, while roughly the same share (47%) identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, according to Pew Research Center polls in 2018 and 2019.
In recent presidential elections, Catholic voters have swung back and forth between the Republican and Democratic candidates. In 2016, 52% of Catholics backed Republican Donald Trump while 44% voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to a Pew Research Center survey of validated voters (that is, members of the Center’s nationally representative American Trends Panel who were matched to voter files). Catholics also narrowly backed Republican George W. Bush over Democrat John Kerry in 2004, according to exit polls.
Catholics chose Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain in 2008 by a margin of 54% to 45%, and divided their votes almost exactly in half in 2012 (when Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney) and 2000 (when Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore).
White and Hispanic Catholics are very different politically. Nearly six-in-ten White Catholic registered voters (57%) identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, marking a big shift since 2008, when four-in-ten (41%) supported the GOP. Most Hispanic Catholic voters (68%), meanwhile, identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, a share that has remained fairly stable in the past decade. (Two-thirds of Catholic registered voters are White, while a quarter are Hispanic, according to data collected in 2018 and 2019.)
Catholics’ views of Trump are clearly divided by race and ethnicity. In a poll conducted in late July and early August – amid a surge in U.S. coronavirus cases – 54% of White Catholics overall said they approve of Trump’s performance as president, but 69% of Hispanic Catholics said they disapprove of the way he is handling his job. And 59% of White Catholic registered voters said they would vote for Trump, or lean that way, if the election were held today; among Hispanic Catholic registered voters, 65% said they would vote for Biden today. There was a similar divide in the last presidential election: 64% of White Catholics voted for Trump in 2016, according to a Pew Research Center survey of validated voters conducted at the time, while 78% of Hispanic Catholics voted for Clinton.
When it comes to specific policy issues, Catholics are often more aligned with their political party than with the teachings of their church. On abortion, for example, 77% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning Catholic adults say they think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 63% of Republican and Republican-leaning Catholics say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, according to a 2019 survey. This divide exists despite the Catholic Church’s formal opposition to abortion.
On immigration, 91% of Catholic Democrats oppose expanding the wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, while 81% of Catholic Republicans favor expanding the wall, according to a separate 2019 survey. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has condemned Trump’s plan to build such a wall, and Pope Francis described the desire to build a border wall as “not Christian.”
These differences reflect a general political polarization among the U.S. public.
Catholics, like members of many other religious groups, don’t necessarily seek a president who shares their religious beliefs, but they want a president who lives a moral and ethical life. About six-in-ten Catholics (62%) say it is very important to them to have a president who personally lives a moral and ethical life, and this view is shared by similar shares of White and Hispanic Catholics, according to a February 2020 survey. Just 14% of Catholics say it is very important to them to have a president who shares their own religious beliefs, though Hispanic Catholics are about twice as likely as White Catholics to say this (22% vs. 9%).
Catholics view religious organizations as forces for good in society, but a clear majority say churches and other religious organizations should keep out of politics. About six-in-ten Catholics (62%) say U.S. churches and other houses of worship should keep out of politics, while 37% say churches should express their views on day-to-day social and political matters, according to a 2019 survey. Around three-quarters of U.S. Catholics (76%) say churches should not endorse candidates seeking elected office.
Partisanship colors Catholics’ perceptions of how religious Trump and Biden are. Overall, around six-in-ten Catholics (59%) say they think Biden is “very” or “somewhat” religious, according to a February 2020 survey. White and Hispanic Catholics express similar views of Biden’s religiousness, but Democratic Catholics (72%) are far more likely than Republican Catholics (46%) to say that he is at least somewhat religious.
Far fewer Catholics overall (37%) say Trump is at least somewhat religious, though the gap between Republicans and Democrats on this question is huge (63% vs. 10%).