Presidential Candidate (M): Seeks Catholic Swing Vote

A pair of recent surveys dissected once again the presumably influential Catholic vote as the nation closes in on the Nov. 6 presidential showdown. The surveys suggest U.S. Catholics follow their political bliss much as the rest of the nation does and despite such seeming non-negotiables as abortion and the preferential option for the poor. According to an analysis by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, American Catholics divide between white Catholics who describe themselves as liberal (11 percent in 2012), who reliably vote Democratic—as do the vast majority of Hispanic Catholics, 21 percent of the Catholic vote—and white Catholics who define themselves as conservative (25 percent), who reliably vote Republican. Only a subset of Catholics truly represent a group willing to swing (sorry) depending on the vicissitudes of the campaign and the times. These white Catholic moderates can represent a significant piece of the Catholic demographic pie; in 2008, according to Pew, they were 32 percent of the nation’s Catholics. It is these folks that the candidates from both parties are actually desperately seeking every four years. (Taken altogether Catholics represent about 25 percent of the nation’s voters.) White Catholic moderates generally take liberal positions on social issues, says Pew, but hold conservative views on the role and size of government. “These cross pressures may help explain why in recent elections the shifts in voting among white Catholic moderates have been greater than among Catholics as a whole.”

According to Pew, these white Catholic moderates were closely divided in both 2000 and 2004 before swinging strongly in the Democratic direction in 2008. Pew researchers have apparently good news for Obama this year. “So far in 2012,” they report, “there has been little drop-off in support for the Democrats among this group… about half of white Catholic moderates identify themselves as Democrats or say they lean toward the Democratic Party (51 percent), while 39 percent prefer the GOP.”

(An interesting side note: Pew finds that the share of the Catholic vote made up of white moderates has been declining over the past decade. In 2000, white moderates accounted for 42 percent of all Catholic voters, compared with 32 percent in the 2008 election. “Over this period, both white conservatives and Hispanics have increased their share of the Catholic electorate,” Pew finds, suggesting that the political/culture war in within the church in the future will add class and ethnicity to its already complex mix.)

Another study tosses out such hackneyed phrases as Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative to describe Catholics. The 2012 American Values Survey, conducted annually by the Public Religion Research Institute, divided church members into “social justice” Catholics and “right to life” Catholics. According to P.R.R.I., “Social justice” Catholics are more likely than “right to life” Catholics to favor Obama (60 percent vs. 37 percent), while “right to life” Catholics are more likely than “social justice” Catholics to favor Romney (67 percent vs. 27 percent). P.R.R.I.’s research “confirms that there is no such thing as ‘the Catholic vote,’” says Robert P. Jones, the institute’s C.E.O. and co-author of the report.

The values analysis included an interesting observation this year. The survey reports that 60 percent of Catholics believe the church should focus more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor, even if it means focusing less on issues like abortion and the right to life, while 31 percent said the opposite.

“Even among Catholics who attend church once a week or more, a group that is often considered more socially conservative,” said E.J. Dionne, Jr., Washington Post columnist, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the report, “a majority believe the Catholic Church should emphasize issues related to justice and our obligations to the poor.”

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