WASHINGTON — With polls still disagreeing on which presidential candidate holds the lead just one day before the election, political analysts believe Catholics will continue to be an influential indicator of what the general electorate will decide.
“The Catholic vote, like any number of votes, does have the potential to make an impact,” said Gregory Smith, a senior researcher who specializes in Catholic politics at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
While they do not vote as a unified group, Catholics are significant in elections because of their large numbers, making up approximately one in four U.S. voters, he said.
Final polling numbers show a neck-and-neck competition between President Barack Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney. Both Catholic voters and the general electorate are closely divided in their support of the candidates as the final days of the campaign come to a close.
On Nov. 4, just two days before the election, Pew released its final pre-election survey, showing Obama with a three-point lead over Romney among likely voters. Among Catholics, however, Romney held a two-point lead over the president.
Despite this discrepancy, Smith told Catholic News Agency Nov. 5 that Catholics still resemble the general electorate more closely than most other religious groups, such as Jews and evangelical Protestants. Both Catholics and Americans as a whole are very closely divided, he explained.
In such a close election, “small changes on the margins” can have “important consequences,” he added, noting that Catholics are one of several groups who could be influential in determining the outcome of the election.
With trends among religious voters remaining relatively similar to those in recent years, Smith said it is difficult to pinpoint what effect the contraception mandate and religious-freedom issues are having on the Catholic vote this year.
Catholics, along with other Americans, have indicated that jobs and the economy are the issues they see as most important in this election, he explained.
At the same time, Smith added, most Catholics who have heard of the mandate say that they agree with the bishops’ concerns, “so there is that sentiment out there.”
In a recent Pew survey, about one-third of Catholics said that they had heard members of the clergy speaking about religious-freedom issues, a slightly higher number than members of other religions.
The survey found that about 60% of Catholics have heard from the clergy about abortion and about 80% have heard about hunger and poverty, he noted, adding that there is not enough data to determine how each of these factors influenced the vote of the faithful.
Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, said that, as a group, Catholics “tend to go slightly for the Democratic candidate,” a trend that is tied to the Church’s increasing Hispanic population.
Newport said that Gallup’s latest numbers show Romney leading 49-48 among the general electorate, with likely Catholic voters favoring Obama by a margin of 52-45.
While it is not yet clear what the Catholic turnout in the election will be, Newport said there is a good possibility that Hispanic Catholics will follow the general Hispanic trend of producing a lower turnout than the general population, while non-Hispanic Catholics will likely vote at about the same rates as the general electorate.
Newport believes that the changing composition of the Church means that overall the Catholic turnout will likely be below average.
Mary Gray, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, thinks the various polls in recent weeks do not lead to a clear conclusion, making the Catholic vote “too close to call.”
Gray explained in an Oct. 26 blog post for the research center that this election is so close that it may be impossible to tell with certainty who won the Catholic vote. This happened in both 1988 and 2004 because polls disagreed on which candidate prevailed among Catholics.
Gray has worked throughout the past months to aggregate data from various polls that include a religious breakdown in order to observe trends in the Catholic vote.
In the final days before the election, Gray observed that “President Obama has an edge among registered voters, but loses this advantage among likely voters.”
Like other analysts, Gray believes the turnout among different Catholic subgroups will determine who wins the vote of this group.
Surveys have indicated that Hispanics and young voters will once again have a lower turnout than the average electorate, while Catholic subgroups that tend to lean Republican are more likely to vote, which “may give Governor Romney an edge in the end.”
Gray predicted that although the results of the general election and the Catholic vote remain too close to call, “the Catholic vote will likely maintain its bellwether status and follow the popular vote closely.”