WASHINGTON — How Catholics will vote has become a central preoccupation of both Democrats and Republicans in the final days of the 2012 presidential election.
Recent polls indicate Catholics are evenly split on the presidential choice between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, and they make up between a fifth and a quarter of the electorate in several crucial “swing” states, such as Iowa, Ohio and Indiana, where polling indicates the vote will be close.
Consequently, both parties have mobilized major initiatives to get sympathetic Catholics out to the voting booth Nov. 6, believing these votes could prove decisive as the neck-and-neck presidential race heads into its final days.
According to Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which, together with the Brookings Institute, released a poll on Oct. 22 about the political alignment of Americans of different faiths, “There is no such thing as a Catholic vote.”
This contrasts to the situation that prevailed during most of the 20th century, during which Catholics collectively constituted an identifiable bloc of voters and predominantly voted for Democratic candidates.
With respect to the presidential election, the September (pre-debates) poll recorded 49% of Catholics backing Obama and 47% supporting Romney. That amounts to a virtual draw, falling within the September survey’s margin of error.
Meanwhile, according to the PRRI-Brookings Institute poll, evangelical Protestants strongly support Romney, while black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics and the “nones” (those with no religious belief) just as strongly back Obama.
Mainline Protestants, like Catholics overall, are divided in several ways.
Voter Fault Lines
As shown by the PRRI-Brookings Institute survey, Catholics divide collectively along the same fault lines as Americans overall on issues such as welfare, health insurance and contraceptive coverage at religious institutions.
On the issue raised by Romney’s comments about 47% of Americans being “takers” who do not work, the poll shows 65% of Catholics affirming the government’s social safety net as a necessary tool to help the poor.
But when the issue is reframed as a question on welfare, 47% of Catholics said that welfare recipients were “taking advantage” of the system, while only 41% said welfare recipients really needed the help.
The poll focused several questions on the issue of whether religious institutions ought to be exempted from the federal mandate of providing health-insurance coverage for contraceptives. A slight majority believed churches should be exempt, while other religious institutions, such as hospitals and schools, should not.
Curiously, PRRI did not release any breakdown by religious belief of those polled on this matter, but a February poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed Catholics supporting an exemption in both cases.
The U.S. bishops have forcefully opposed the contraceptive mandate as an unacceptable infringement of the religious freedom of religious individuals and institutions.
The PRRI poll directed a question exclusively at Catholics on the role of the institutional Church, finding 60% believe it should push more on social-justice issues and helping the poor rather than on issues related to “abortion and the right to life.” Only 31% preferred the stress fall on life issues.
Even Catholics attending Mass weekly, by a 51%-36% margin, wanted the Church to stress social justice more than life issues. According to PRRI’s survey report, “social justice” Catholics were far more likely to vote for Obama (60%-37%), while “right to life” Catholics were even likelier to vote for Romney (67%-27%). The survey, however, did not ask Catholics to identify themselves as “social justice” or “right to life” Catholics.
Mark Gray, director of Catholic polling for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, says the PRRI-Brookings survey confirms that “Catholics are bellwether voters and have been for decades. Whichever way they vote, so do the American voters.”
But the PRRI survey exaggerates Catholic support for Obama and the Democrats because the it polls all registered voters, Gray said. “A far better group to predict the election outcome,” he said, “would be those identified by pollsters as ‘likely to vote.’”
And those likely voters are also likelier to vote Republican. “They are regular churchgoers; they have higher incomes,” Gray told the Register.
CARA’s running aggregate of polls showed a consistent but narrow lead for Romney throughout September and October among “likely” voters.
Weekly Mass-attending Catholics, especially whites, along with regular white churchgoers of other denominations, favor Romney.
CARA’s work has also identified what these same likely-to-vote Catholics care about most, and it is virtually the same as Americans overall: the economy, which came first at 28% of both groups; next, the budget and deficit, 16% for all likely voters and 17% for Catholics likely to vote; third, jobs, at 15% for all likely voters; and fourth, health costs, at 12% for Catholics likely to vote.
GOP Issue: Religious Liberty
Nonetheless, Republican efforts to win over undecided Catholics or “soft” Democratic Catholics will not concentrate on economics, said Leonard Leo, who is director of the Republican Party’s Catholic outreach. That’s because, he said, “For Catholics who consider the economy the top issue, Romney is already their best choice.”
Leo said the effort to attract swing Catholics will be “all about religious liberty.”
The Catholic Association, a group Leo helped found, is distributing a “religious-freedom scorecard” to Catholics that lists seven areas where Obama gets a failing grade and Romney gets an “A-plus.”
Examples cited by The Catholic Association include the fact that as governor of Massachusetts Romney tried to stop the state Legislature from requiring Catholic charities to place orphans with same-sex couples; Obama’s contraceptive mandate that forces Catholic institutions to insure contraception; and the religious-liberty award conferred on Romney in 2008 by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The Catholic Association has also released its own recent poll, which found strong support among Catholics for religious-freedom rights. The poll also found that 57% of all Catholics — and 67% of regular Mass-attending Catholics — believe that the “Obama administration has gone too far in placing restrictions on religious freedom when implementing their programs and policies.”
Leo said the GOP campaign is targeting churchgoing Catholics by every available means, ranging from telephone calls to YouTube to door-knocking. “It’s working,” he reported. “Support among active Catholics is 61%. That’s 5% higher for Romney than it was for [George W.] Bush.”
Democrats: Get Out the Vote
For President Obama, black Americans, Hispanic Catholics and younger registered voters, who all support him strongly, are less likely to vote than the Catholic constituencies backing Romney.
“For the Democrats, the election is about getting out the vote: getting those not likely to vote to the polls,” said Gray. “And that includes Catholics who are not likely to vote.”
The Democrats are targeting Catholics, confirms J. Patrick Whelan, who helped found Catholics for Kerry and Catholics for Obama in the last two presidential election cycles and the current effort, Catholic Democrats.
According to Whelan, the current campaign is “anti-negative,” meaning it is aimed at countering Republican attempts to paint Obama as inimical to Catholicism. Democrats are stressing that Obama, in his days as a community activist in Chicago, worked closely with inner-city Catholic priests and even located his office in a Catholic church.
“Obama has Catholic sensibilities drawn from Catholic social doctrines,” said Whelan.
Catholic Democrats’ efforts to reach Catholic voters include setting up a Web forum to report incidents where churches are used to promote the Republicans and making such reports available to the news media. The Democrat group will also mail every Catholic church in the swing states a reminder to stay clear of partisan politics.
Whelan said he originally got involved in the 2004 campaign to defend Democratic nominee John Kerry from the criticisms of “conservative bishops,” and he believes that in 2012 the Catholic bishops have been mainly hostile to Obama. He sees their campaign for religious liberty as an attempt to turn Catholics away from the president.
“The HHS bill [with the contraceptive mandate] just gave the bishops a convenient whipping boy,” Whelan said. “Their religious-freedom campaign was already in the works when the bill came out.”
But Mark Gray of CARA rejected this assessment. He said the bishops have remained non-partisan throughout the campaign. The bishops have strongly supported traditional marriage and a comprehensive reform of immigration laws and have rejected contraception, abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and threats to religious liberty. They have also addressed issues related to the economy.
“The Church has been fair — it has pointed out the problems in both platforms,” Gray said. “It was extremely critical of the [Republican-controlled] House budget. Taken in totality, it has been quite balanced.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.