There Is No Catholic Vote, Just Catholic Sensibilities

 

In polite circles, people aren’t supposed to discuss religion or politics. In the real world, the two are becoming inseparable. So one of the first things TV analysts talk about from election exit polls is how religious groups voted, particularly Protestant evangelicals and Catholics.

The first, evangelicals, are very predictable, and at least in the Republican primary race, very predictive. Catholics are neither because they are not a truly coherent voting bloc. Added to the mix in this Presidential cycle are Mormons, who have helped Mitt Romney in some western states, but his faith may be costing him votes now and may again in the fall election should he be the nominee.

Let’s start with what is and isn’t going on with Catholics as it pertains to Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic whose father emigrated as a young child from Italy and whose mom is the daughter of Catholic Italian- and Irish-American parents.

You may have heard commentators express surprise on recent primary nights because Santorum was losing Catholics to Romney. Count me as totally unsurprised. There is no Catholic vote, just Catholic sensibilities. Yes, they would react against a politician who slurred Catholics. But otherwise, Catholics are a mixed voting group. Some have stayed with their ethnic Democrat roots. Others went over to the Republicans after the social upheaval of the 1960s and the rise of Ronald Reagan’s conservatism based on values and patriotism. The rest are true swing voters in much the same percentages as the electorate at-large.

I know this from my polling research and my life. I am a Catholic of Lebanese-American descent who went to Catholic schools from kindergarten through college. I grew up in the rust belt city of Utica, NY, where nearly everyone I knew until I went away to college was Catholic and of Italian, Polish, Irish or Lebanese descent. Most were Democrats because it was the party of the working class and the party that could get you a city or other government job.  Religious beliefs had nothing to do with it.

Now, the term “cafeteria Catholics” is often used, and for good reason. Even those that go to church don’t follow all the church’s rules, let alone vote their religion. That’s why it was so off-base to believe that the Obama Administration’s ruling regarding contraception under the Affordable Health Care Act would harm him with Catholics. Since upwards of 90% of Catholic women have used birth control, requiring that insurance policies cover it was never going to turn them against the President.

There are, of course, many socially conservative Catholics. They vote much like the Protestant evangelical social conservatives who in state after state have been Santorum’s base. As others have noted, you can closely predict the outcome of all the GOP primaries so far by the percentage of voters who are social (and religious) conservatives. If their percentage is high enough, Santorum wins.

Looking ahead to potential match-ups between Obama and either Romney or Santorum, the same religious trends hold. The JZ analytics poll for the Washington Times finds Obama beating Romney, 45%-36%, and Santorum, 46%-36%. Obama beats both men among Catholics, doing a bit better against Santorum than he does against Romney. Both Republicans clobber Obama among born-again Christians; Santorum by 30 points and Romney 20.

That last result raises another religious question.  Are their religious conservatives who would vote for Santorum, but not Romney? The JZ analytics poll shows that the answer may be yes. By now, everyone knows Romney has a credibility problem with all conservatives who wonder if he really believes what they believe, or if he is a political shape-shifter who might again become moderate if they help make him President.

Less obvious is whether Romney’s Mormon faith is also discouraging Christian conservatives from backing him. A Pew poll last November found one-half of white evangelical Protestant Republicans saying the Mormon religion is not a Christian faith. Other polls have found that substantial numbers of Christian conservatives don’t believe that Obama is a Christian. So how do Christian conservatives vote if they have a choice between two men they may not believe are Christians?  Do they not vote at all? Or will there be a third party choice in some states?

These are tough question to answer, and problems for Romney, who would much rather focus only on the economy. But in today’s United States, we can’t escape talking about politics and religion.

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