The campaign for religious freedom is the cause of a marked shift in Catholic voter support from President Obama to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, some political observers believe.

Others disagree, arguing that the very existence of a “Catholic vote” is a myth.

Whether they vote as a bloc or not, self-identifying Catholics comprise 27% of the electorate. Hispanics account for roughly a third of the total, but their share is growing yearly, and they vote very differently from white Catholics.

Sparking debate about the significance of Catholic voters is a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, showing that Obama has lost 5% of the electorate in the last month, and 8% of Catholics, shifting them from favoring Obama by a 53% to 44% margin to preferring Romney by a 50% to 45% margin. Americans overall still prefer Obama by a 49% to 45% edge.

During the same month, Catholic candidate Rick Santorum suspended his campaign, leaving Mormon Romney the almost certain Republican candidate and the beneficiary of the shift. It appears that Newt Gingrich, a Catholic convert, also will drop out.

Romney has been more popular with Catholics than both Santorum and Gingrich throughout the campaign for reasons unknown but much speculated upon.


Long-Term Drift

Meanwhile, the Gallup organization found this week that Romney is doing well among regular churchgoers.

“Mitt Romney leads Barack Obama by 17 percentage points, 54% to 37%, among very religious voters,” Gallup reported April 25.

Among Catholics, the poll found, those who are very religious support Romney over Obama, 50% to 46%, but Obama fares better among moderately religious Catholics (based on church attendance and how seriously they say they take their faith), 55% to 42%, and nonreligious Catholics, 55% to 40%.

A long-term drift of Catholics from the Democratic Party, which held a virtual lock on their votes for a century, began in the late 1970s, according to political scientist David Campbell, director of the University of Notre Dame Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy and co-author with Robert Putnam of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon and Schuster).

“Some believe this change is primarily economic — as you earn more, you are more likely to vote Republican — but I believe it is due to social issues,” most prominently to abortion, Campbell said. While both parties were “moderately pro-choice” before that time, Campbell said, afterwards they diverged, with the Republicans becoming strongly pro-life.

John White, political science professor at The Catholic University of America, believes the recent 8% shift in the Catholic vote is “in large part due to the recent debate over health care and contraception.”

At the same time, white Catholics have made an even more pronounced shift. They have moved from preferring Obama by 53%-44% in March to favoring Romney 57% to 37% in April. The margin favoring Romney among all Catholics — both white and Hispanic — is much less: 50%-45%. Though Pew’s pollsters did not survey enough Hispanic Catholics to provide reliable results for them, the results for Catholics overall at least suggest that Hispanics have also shifted a little towards the Republicans but still favor Obama.

White believes that the Obama administration “stumbled into this” fight with the Catholic bishops over health care and was not looking for a fight. But, he admits, “some of my colleagues believe it was a deliberate, calculated move” on the part of Democratic strategists, based on the assumption that further erosion of white Catholics would be more than balanced by the gains among unmarried women.

“I believe the Obama administration did focus groups and polling and decided it was not such a big gamble to refuse the Catholic institutions the exemption they wanted from the health-care plan,” CUA politics professor Claes Ryn said. “They may have found that not just unmarried women, but Catholic women would love to have sex-related services covered by health insurance.”

But Ryn thinks that Obama may still have made a mistake: “Catholic women, at least, may, upon reflection, decide it is not such a good idea having the federal government intruding into their institutions, even if they personally are in opposition to some Church teachings. They may say to Obama, ‘Butt out — this is my own business.’”

In White’s view, the Republicans let the Democrats frame the dispute with religious organizations over health care as one of women’s rights.


Hispanic Immigration

Whether he picked or stumbled into the fight with the Catholic Church, Obama has retained the unmarried-women demographic: According to Pew’s latest poll, 59% of unmarried women support Obama, and only 35% support Romney. But Pew does not have data to show whether Obama has drawn increased support among unmarried women since March.

White believes that Obama’s chance to win the election in November will rest on younger, nonreligious voters, because the white Catholic share of the electorate will be down from 2008,White, the author of Barack Obama’s America: How New Conceptions of Race, Family and Religion Ended the Reagan Era (University of Michigan Press, 2009), believes the increasing Hispanic vote, though mostly Catholic, will support Obama because the Democrats have courted it, while the Republicans have either ignored it or alienated it with immigration laws.

White also believes the Catholic bishops, in so strongly opposing Obama’s health-care measures, may, in the event of an Obama victory, find themselves isolated from the administration. “I would prefer to see the bishops being a pain [in the neck] to both parties equally,” Said White.

(In fact, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops demonstrated just such even-handedness last week when Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Social Development and the conference’s spokesman on domestic affairs, condemned the budget passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives as “unjustified and wrong” for what he saw as cuts to poverty programs.)


Is the Catholic Vote a Myth?

Notre Dame’s Campbell said the health-insurance fight underlines the problem with the whole idea of a Catholic voting bloc. While the bishops oppose the Democrats on the health-care plan, they are closer to them than to Republicans on military spending, immigration and poverty programs. Catholics in general are similarly conflicted.

Abortion trumps all other social issues for Catholics, Campbell notes. And the more frequently believers attend church, the more likely they are to disapprove of abortion and to vote Republican.

Since this relationship between increasing attendance at worship services and an increasing tendency to vote Republican is the same for all religions, it argues against a “Catholic vote,” Campbell said. Similarly, Catholics have shifted their vote between Republicans and Democrats in the same proportions as the general electorate in the past three elections.

Catholics preferred the Democratic presidential candidate in 2000 (Al Gore, when, in fact, he won the popular vote), the Republican George W. Bush in 2004, and Obama in 2008, though narrowly.

But wait, says White. In the most recent poll, while Catholic women prefer Obama by roughly the same 8% margin as all women, Catholic males currently prefer Romney by 22%, while all American men prefer the Republican candidate by only 6%. This makes white Catholic males “outliers” — different enough from the American norm and numerous enough at 10% of the population to be studied by pollsters and cultivated by politicians, especially in the Northeast, where white Catholics comprise a larger proportion of the overall electorate.

Indeed, Obama appealed to this group in 2008 by selecting a Catholic male, Sen. Joe Biden, as his vice president. And he has also used female Catholic politicians such as Kathleen Sebelius and Nancy Pelosi to sell his health care reform plan and win female Catholics. Catholic University’s White predicts Obama will take similar steps to court the white Catholic vote in the 2012 race.

As to just why these politicians were unrepresentative of Catholicism, George Weigel,  commentator and biographer of Pope John Paul II, counted the ways in a recent column: first, because  they had failed to promote the cause of life, which he termed “the cultural marker of serious Catholicism in the United States;” second, because they had failed to protect religious freedom; and third, because their promotion of big government flew in the face of the Church’s teachings on subsidiarity, which holds that people’s needs should be addressed by community and political action at the level closest to the people.
But the Republicans have no chance of winning over black Protestants, the religious group showing the most support for Obama — 96%. Alveda King, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece and a pro-life activist with Priests for Life, told the Register that most black Christians set such store by Obama as the “first American president with brown skin” that they set aside their pro-life views. Like Americans of all colors, “they worship patriotism or they worship money or they worship race before they worship God. They tell me, ‘Alveda, I’ll pray for the pro-life cause, but I’ll vote for Obama.’”

Bishop John Ricard, president of the  National Black Catholic Congress, agreed that black Catholics are “very pro-life” and see abortion as targeting blacks.

But black Catholics are also “conflicted” at the level of national politics, Bishop Ricard added, because, while the Republicans support life, “the Democrats reflect our concern for the poor, for housing and jobs.”  This makes the choice in November “a very difficult one,” he added. “I tell black Americans to vote with their conscience, but it must be a conscience informed by Scriptures and by the Church’s teaching.”

Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.