A review of CNN exit poll data following last month's presidential election showed that the candidate who carried the Catholic vote in the eight largest swing states also carried that state. So Catholics probably proved to be pivotal in this election.
Senator Kerry suffered six months of unprecedented personal attacks, including those by a few bishops who chose to use their office to assert their own political views in the presidential race. These attacks were leveled in very personal terms, as if Mr. Kerry alone was responsible for the tragedy of abortion in America. The reality is that his views are shared by a huge swath of believing Catholics, who are convinced that there are far more Christian (and effective) ways to prevent abortions than by putting hundreds of thousands of pregnant women in prison.
The CNN exit data showed that only 15% of all respondents (not sorted by religion) said abortion should always be illegal. Another 26% felt it should be legal with some restrictions. The effectiveness of the Bush Administration in dealing with abortion will become somewhat clearer when they finally release their first abortion surveillance data (for 2001), planned for the day after Thanksgiving. We may begin to see whether Bush social and economic policies have indeed boosted the number of abortions in the US as early data have suggested.
Exit polls suggested that the Catholic vote was crucial. CNN reported that self-identified Catholics represented 27% of all voters. Mr. Bush appears to have carried the majority, with 51% voting Republican and 48% for Mr. Kerry. Among those who said they attended Mass weekly, 55% appeared to have voted for Mr. Bush, but this was not consistent across the country. In California, 62% of weekly Mass attendees favored Senator Kerry, compared to only 36% for Bush. Overall, Mr. Kerry carried a majority of Catholics who said they attended less often than weekly (52%).
Senator Kerry won the Catholic vote in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Mr. Bush's margin of victory among Catholics was especially striking in the two key states of Ohio and Florida, where he won 55% and 57% of the Catholic vote, respectively. Given the unusual involvement of the St. Louis archbishop in the presidential race, it was notable that Mr. Bush merely edged Mr. Kerry among Catholics there, 50 to 49%.
The fallout from this election for our Church may be huge. Many people who have written to us about pastors who advocated from the pulpit for Mr. Bush are questioning their allegiance to parishes that seemed to have become vehicles for Republican political maneuvering. Many of us shudder at the way thousands of Republican organizers were deployed into Catholic parishes in this election cycle. Although Mr. Bush may be the winner in this presidential race, we and our Church are the losers. The 2008 presidential election is likely to see a far vaster exploitation of churches in general, and ours in particular, which will make 2004 look like a time of virtuous separation of church and state in comparison.