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The Catholic Vote in America is More Complicated Than It Seems

Image: COLOMBIA-RELIGION-HOLY WEEK

A Catholic man prays on his knees in the church of San Francisco during the Holy Week, in Cali, Valle del Cauca department, Colombia on April 1, 2015. AFP PHOTO / LUIS ROBAYOLUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images LUIS ROBAYO / AFP - Getty Images

Two years into his time in the Vatican, Pope Francis has favorability ratings that would make any politician envious. Among American Catholics, 74 percent approve of his performance in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

But “American Catholics” is a complicated term. Data show that self-identified Catholics look very different in the United States depending on where you are. Their stance on key social issues that divide U.S. electorate — gay marriage, abortion — is more politically liberal than you might expect. And larger demographic shifts may be making them more so.

Overall, Catholics in the Eastern and Midwestern United States are older and whiter than Catholics as a whole, according to data from the Pew Research Center. And the Church in the West and South is younger and much more Hispanic.

Those differences in the South are likely because Texas is considered a Southern state in the Census regional breakdown, rather than a Western one. And, of course, the Lone Star State has a large Hispanic population.

Beyond the simple geographic differences, those numbers are important because if you consider the growth in the Hispanic population in the United States, you would expect the more western face of the Catholic Church to become more dominant in the coming years. And that may have some political impact

Western Catholics, the youngest and most Hispanic of all the regions, are also among the most liberal on key political issues. The Pew Research Center data show Catholics in the West are the most likely to favor gay marriage and among the most likely to think abortion should be always or mostly legal.

It’s worth keeping all these numbers in mind at election time. Beware data that shows the “Catholic vote” moving. While candidates want to win every voter segment “winning the Catholic vote” is something of a misleading indicator.

For instance, President Barack Obama won the Catholic vote in 2012 — 50 percent to 48 percent for Republican Mitt Romney. But Mr. Obama actually lost the white Catholic vote, 40 percent to 59 percent for Mr. Romney. Obviously then, the president won the Hispanic Catholic vote, by a very large margin.

When you look at all the numbers two things stand out.

There are many different Catholic votes in the United States and different kinds of Catholic voters. That makes Pope Francis’s job as the leader of the single church that much harder and his favorability numbers that much more impressive.