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Just How Important Will the Catholic Vote be in 2016?

As Pope Francis comes to Washington this week there will inevitably be discussions of the politics of the visit. Does the pontiff favor one party or the other and what will it mean for the “Catholic vote” in 2016?

Here’s one answer to consider: Maybe not as much as anyone thinks. In fact, when you look closely at the numbers, the Catholic vote looks less like a “crucial swing-voting block” than a broad indicator of where the electorate already is.

On the surface, the importance of the Catholic vote seems self-evident. Since 1972, the winner of the popular vote in every presidential race won the Catholic vote, going by the exit polls. From Nixon in 1972 to Obama in 2012.

That’s even true for 2000, when then-Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote, and the presidency, to George W. Bush. That’s 11 consecutive presidential races where Catholics sided with the popular winner, an impressive streak by any measure.

But stop for a moment and think about that. What it really means is “the Catholic vote” is remarkably malleable.

Since 1972, the Democrats and Republicans haven’t changed positions on issues that are often cited as crucial in Catholic Church, such as abortion or capital punishment. And yet, over that time the Catholic vote has gone with the Democratic candidate six times and the Republican five times – going back and forth.

Catholics voted to elect Ronald Reagan twice and George H.W. Bush. They then voted to elect Bill Clinton twice and Al Gore. They voted for George W. Bush before voting for Barack Obama, again twice.

How’s that possible? One big factor is that Catholics are a varied lot and on many key measures, they look a lot like the population as a whole.

There are some differences in that chart above, which was created by comparing data from a massive Pew Research Center in 2014 and the latest U.S. Census data. Look at the percentages for annual household incomes under $50,000.

But overall Catholics bear a striking resemblance to cross-section of Americans. Especially critical are the percentages for non-Hispanic whites and for those with college degrees. Those two measures are often revealing at election time and Catholics are extremely close to the national figures on them.

Other parallels include the growing Hispanic population in the Church, which shares traits with the demographic shift remaking the United States – though the Hispanic population is growing much faster among Catholics.

Taken together, the numbers suggest that, like voters in general, Catholic voters take elections as they come, case by case. There is not a small set of issues that determines which way they vote. The broader set of factors that move any electorate – from the economy to specific candidate traits – move the Catholic electorate as well.

Put more simply, the numbers suggest that candidates win the Catholic vote because they win the popular vote, not the other way around.

None of this belittles this week’s visit from Pope Francis or the political debates that will rise around it. But keep in mind there’s a lot more to winning the “Catholic vote” in 2016 than praising or being praised by the man from Vatican City.