Where are the Catholic Voters?

It's time for Mass: do you know where the Catholic voters are?

This used to be an easy question. All but a few Catholics were found in pews in rock-solid Democratic parishes, part of a national political coalition that blended populist economics and working- class family values. Those days are gone.

"There's more than one Catholic vote now. All of the polls show that," said former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, a 30-year veteran of politics in a state in which 30 percent or more of the voters are Catholics. "Today you have to ask, `What kind of Catholic voters are we talking about?'"

Today, most researchers use labels such as rural, suburban, blue-collar or Hispanic when describing Catholics. But signs of another dividing line could be found buried in data gathered after 1994's political earthquake, when GOP candidates -- for the first time -- won a majority of Catholic votes. The best indicator of how someone voted in '94 was his or her "religiosity."

"Cultural issues were driving the nation's politics," said Casey, whose strong opposition to abortion has caused nasty clashes with other Democrats. "Average Americans seemed more concerned about the moral deficit than they were the fiscal deficit. ... My fellow Democrats may not want to talk about it, but the more voters go to church, the more likely they are to vote Republican."

Most researchers are focusing on the Religious Right. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, for example, noted that white evangelical conservatives have become the most powerful religious force in American politics, making up 24 percent of registered voters, up from 19 percent in 1987. The number of registered Republicans in these pews rose 9 percent from 1978 to 1987 and another 7 percent between 1987 and 1995.

Populist Southern Protestants were another key piece of the old Democratic coalition. But ballot-box massacres of Southern Democrats in '94, and a string of retirements, showed that millions have switched parties or are poised to jump. The big question: What about frost-belt Catholics?

"There's much more to this than the Christian Coalition. That's too simplistic," said Casey. "The real story is an underlying restlessness out there among church-goers of all kinds. ... This is linked to the issue of moral decline and, I would say, to the (right to) life issue."

But while the 1994 elections demonstrated some Catholic restlessness, the Pew study made a crucial distinction when describing "Catholic voters." On the pivotal abortion issue, it noted that 70 percent of liberal Protestants, non-religious people and "progressive Catholics" support abortion rights, while "traditional Catholics," blacks and evangelicals are much more likely to be pro-life. Political leaders who covet the votes of America's 60 million Catholics must face this reality.

On a typical Sunday, millions of Catholics sleep late, read the newspaper, jog and enjoy the rituals that unite the unchurched. These cultural Catholics hold progressive views on both economic and moral issues. They identify themselves as Catholics, but most vote like secularists and liberal Protestants.

Millions of other Catholics go to church. They tend to be economic populists and moral conservatives. In the 1980s, many became "Reagan Democrats" and their loyalty to their old party remains strained. They are traditional Catholics and, more and more, they vote like evangelical Protestants.

Catholic voters -- both kinds -- still matter because millions vote in crucial "swing" states such as New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Almost all of them reject the GOP's "economic elitism," said Casey. However, church-going Catholics have begun rejecting the "cultural elitism" of modern Democrats.

"Wags have been saying that the ideal presidential candidate right now would be a pro-life, New Deal Democrat who believes in school prayer," said Casey, whose fragile health canceled his plans to challenge Bill Clinton. "That kind of candidate would scare the Republicans, as well as many Democrats. But that candidate would be able to address the moral and economic concerns of millions of people -- Catholics, evangelicals and a lot of others, too."