Catholic vote could pick the 2012 winner

Former Sen. Rick Santorum has spoken out against a federal policy requiring religious institutions to offer birth control coverage.

Story highlights

  • Paul Sracic: Republican candidates are battling for Catholic voters' allegiance
  • Romney, Gingrich, Santorum have done well with Catholics, he says
  • Catholic voters have backed the winner in most recent presidential elections
  • Sracic: Flap over contraception mandate could damage Obama's prospects
President Barack Obama may be happy that the Republicans continue to battle it out over who will be their nominee. There is, however, a fact that he should consider: No matter who wins the nomination, the GOP candidate is likely to be acceptable to Catholic voters. This may well be crucial during the general election campaign.
Obviously, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are both Catholics, and so can probably rely on strong Catholic support in November (Santorum lost the Catholic vote in Pennsylvania in 2006, but his rival, Robert Casey, Jr., also is Catholic). But one of the more interesting facts to emerge from the exit and entrance polls in Florida and Nevada last week was how well Mitt Romney did with Catholics in those states.
Even while facing two Catholic challengers, Romney, a member of the Mormon church, walked away with 56% of the Catholic vote in Florida and 48% in Nevada.
The results are not an anomaly, since much the same happened among a very different electorate a few weeks earlier in New Hampshire.
In the Granite State, Romney managed to capture 45% percent of the Catholic vote. Although Romney did lose the Catholic vote in South Carolina, Catholics made up only 13% of voters in that state. In Florida and New Hampshire, Catholics accounted for about one-third of all voters, while in Nevada, the figure was 21%.
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There is an interesting symmetry here. In 1960, John F. Kennedy asked the American people to accept that his Catholic beliefs did not disqualify him from the presidency; in 2012, Catholic Republicans at least, seem to be returning the favor, showing a willingness to support Mitt Romney, a candidate whose Mormon faith many believed would be a major obstacle to his success in the presidential race.
That all three of the major Republican candidates (Ron Paul has yet to win a primary or caucus) are likely to receive strong Catholic support could be crucial in November. After all, Catholics make up more than a quarter of the national electorate. Moreover, Hispanic Americans, a group that will be targeted by both Democrats and Republicans, particularly in swing states like Florida, are overwhelmingly Catholic.
Consider how potent the Catholic vote has been in recent elections: Bill Clinton captured the Catholic vote in 1992 and 1996. George W. Bush narrowly won the Catholic vote and re-election in 2004. Barack Obama captured both the Catholic vote and the presidency by wide margins in 2008.
The exception to this pattern occurred in 2000, when Al Gore edged out Bush among Catholics. Still, Gore did win the popular vote, though not the electoral vote, in 2000. The pattern continued even during the recent midterm elections, when Republicans took the House back with Catholic voters favoring Republican candidates by a 10-point margin, 54% to 44%.
It is hard not to conclude that, if history is any guide, whoever wins Catholics in November will likely be standing in front of the Capitol taking the presidential oath in January 2013. Of course, a correlation like this always raises a more complicated question about causation.
According to a 2007 Pew survey, the political ideology of Catholics mirrors that of the nation. So it might be that a candidate who appeals to the nation as whole, also appeals to Catholic voters. Alternatively, Catholics, as a large voting group, may be an important building block for any candidate seeking to construct an electoral majority.
If the latter is the case, the ability of a Republican candidate to attract Catholic votes could pose a real threat to the Obama's re-election effort.
Still, surveys show that, at most, about 33% of Catholics consider themselves part of the GOP.
Therefore, to win the general election, any Republican nominee will have to craft a message that appeals not only to Catholic Republicans, but also to Catholic independents, and perhaps even those who lean toward the Democrats.
Here, Republican may have received a boost from the Obama administration's recent decision to mandate that almost all employers, including religious groups, provide health coverage for FDA-approved contraceptives and sterilization services. This has set off a firestorm among the Catholic leadership in the United States, because it appears to force many Catholic universities, hospitals, and social service agencies to pay for services that are against Catholic teachings.
Indeed, in an unusual move, priests throughout the country read letters at Mass from their bishops denouncing the administration's actions.
Of course, whether the controversy actually moves a significant number of Catholics into the GOP column in November is an open question. After all, the Church has been quite clear in its opposition to abortion, yet this has not stopped Catholic voters from backing politicians who support abortion rights, including Barack Obama in 2008.
But this issue may be different. The response of many of the affected Catholic organizations may be to stop offering health insurance to their workers. Should they do so, they will be subject to potentially hefty federal penalties. So the administration's actions can easily be perceived as harming the very Catholic agencies and institutions -- for example Catholic Charities -- that are viewed most favorably by more liberal Catholics.
Perhaps this is why David Axelrod, the president's chief political advisor, and Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, have each indicated that there may be some room for compromise on the part of the administration over this issue. They know that these more liberal Catholic voters may be crucial to Obama's re-election effort in November.
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