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August 23rd, 2012

Catholic Votes Up for Grabs

What issues will matter to Catholic voters in this year's presidential election?


The U.S. Bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom campaign is finished, but the Romney campaign hopes to capitalize on some Catholic bishops’ efforts against the Obama administration’s contraception health care mandate by recapturing Catholic votes in key states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The magic bullet? Religious liberty. The campaign believes questions over religious liberty have united Catholics, and voters of all faiths, across the spectrum.

“When people of faith feel like their freedom of religion is being trampled upon, that is something that unites people of all faiths,” said Peter Flaherty, a Catholic and longtime Romney advisor who is credited with coordinating the public endorsement of five former ambassadors to the Holy See. “Religious liberty is an issue that we continue to talk to leaders in the faith community about that continues to resonate every day, and it’s not letting up at all. The energy around it is absolutely incredible.”

But John Gehring, Catholic program director for the liberal advocacy group Faith in Public Life, said that broader social justice concerns and the economy may dwarf the issue of religious liberty.

“I have a hard time believing what’s keeping most Catholics up at night is whether or not a working mom who cleans rooms or serves food at a cafeteria at a Catholic hospital has her contraception covered. I think that Catholics, like most Americans these days, are struggling to pay mortgages, find a good job, or make sure their kids have access to quality health care. These are all profound moral issues, and should be part of a broader debate in this election,” he said, but he concedes that religious liberty has become an issue in this election year. “This has taken on political implications in a pretty significant way.”

HHS mandate

Neither Romney nor Obama have been able to capture a strong majority of Catholic voters in polls this year, but Obama holds a wide lead over Romney when Catholics are asked which individual more closely mirrors their social issue concerns, 50-36% (though the numbers flip for weekly church-going Catholics).

The Catholic vote is certainly up for grabs. George W. Bush attracted more Catholic voters than his Catholic rival, John Kerry, in the 2004 election, and four years later, Catholics went overwhelmingly for Barack Obama over John McCain. The impressive gains Bush made in attracting Catholic voters were virtually wiped away. The Romney campaign hopes to recapture these votes by offering a clear choice to Catholic voters. Flaherty, the Romney advisor, sums it up this way: “With the Supreme Court ruling [upholding most of the Obama health care law], there is no gray area anymore. You vote for Obama, and you have the HHS mandate. You vote for Governor Romney, and the mandate doesn’t go into effect.”

But Gehring said that Catholic voters may ultimately reject Republican economic views, putting aside questions of religious liberty when they enter the voting booth. “It’s pretty clear that the Republic economic orthodoxy is really anathema to a Catholic tradition that for centuries has stood up for workers’ rights, believes in a positive role for government, and a need to temper the excesses of the free market,” he said.

So who has the advantage with Catholic voters?

A new Pew Forum poll on Catholic attitudes toward religious freedom, social issues, and the 2012 election shows that most Catholics, 64%, have at least heard of the bishops’ complaints against the Obama administration. Among those who know of the concerns, 56% generally agree. Will this translate into votes for Romney, as his advisers believe? Not necessarily.

Neither Romney nor Obama have been able to capture a strong majority of Catholic voters in polls this year, but Obama holds a wide lead over Romney when Catholics are asked which individual more closely mirrors their social issue concerns, 50-36% (though the numbers flip for weekly church-going Catholics). When asked whom they will vote for in November, Catholic voters have tended to express support for Obama over Romney, with the margin this month of 51-42%.

Read the full study here.

Outlook for this fall

So what does all this mean? It appears that many Catholics agree in some ways with the U.S. Bishops, that the Obama administration may have overreached on certain health care mandates and be viewed as infringing on religious liberty. But this concern doesn’t seem to be enough to alienate Catholic voters from the president, a group he won in 2008.

The Romney campaign seems to be betting on a strategy that voters are so disillusioned with the president that they will vote for his opponent without really knowing much about him or his vision for the country. Data suggests otherwise. Obama continues to maintain a slim lead nationally and small but important leads in key swing states; and Electoral College math suggest that Romney has his work cut out for him.

If the Obama administration is able to convince voters that it is open to compromise on health insurance mandates for Catholic employers, perhaps waiting until later in the fall to make such an announcement, any advantage Romney may have with the religious liberty crowd may evaporate.

The Author : Michael O'Loughlin
Mike O'Loughlin is a writer living in Washington, D.C., covering religion, politics, and culture. In addition to Busted Halo, his writing appears in the Advocate, National Catholic Reporter, Foreign Policy, Religion & Politics, and America. He's also appeared on Fox News and MSNBC. Follow him on twitter at @mikeoloughlin.
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  • Christy

    oops… “different manner” (not matter)

  • Christy

    Here’s an idea: Do your research. Vote for the candidate who is most in line with you ethics, morals and political views. Then be happy with how you voted and don’t condemn others as crappy Catholics for voting in a different matter.

  • Patrice

    I re-read the article and this line popped out at me “It’s pretty clear that the Republic economic orthodoxy is really anathema to a Catholic tradition that for centuries has stood up for workers’ rights, believes in a positive role for government, and a need to temper the excesses of the free market,” What a crock! The socialist worldview of our country’s “war on poverty” is a complete failure. It hasn’t worked in getting anyone out of poverty and has only increased the number of people living in poverty. Generations of families are on welfare with no plans or hopes of getting off. It is absolutely the Church’s job to work for social justice and to reduce poverty but for too long we’ve happily tossed off that responsibility to the government. God calls US to take care of the poor, not the gov’t. In so many cities now mayors are putting an end to feeding the poor and homeless by the churches. Why? Because THEY want people to depend on THEM, not the church. They want people dependent on the government. They want the power. And too many people in the Church think this is a good thing. This president’s policies have increased unemployment (how does that help with workers’ rights), and increased out debt to a point where in the future our kids and grandkids will NEVER be able to get ahead because they’re paying that off. It’s just ridiculous to think that the democrats are more concerned with social justice than are republicans. Democrats are constantly expanding social INjustice with their policies.

  • Patrice

    ANolan, President Obama is not even remotely pro-life. I don’t understand how you can think that he’s more pro-life than Romney. He’s for abortion at any time throughout a pregnancy, even late term and “partial birth” abortions. As far as working toward a stronger middle class, “fairer” tax rates, and a better standard of living, President Obama’s policies do none of these. A socialist tendency and welfare state do more to create poverty and reduce the standard of living than free markets and reducing taxes do. Look around the world and see for yourself that socialism (which is what Obama is pushing) never ever improves the lives of people. It doesn’t help the environment. And it always increases poverty. Definitely NOT a pro-life system by any means.

  • Megan V.


    Out of curiosity, what would you do if the only pro-life candidate held the opposite view of yours on all the other issues?

    I’m pretty liberal, but also fiercly pro-life (in many senses, but including being against abortion in any form). This makes it extremely difficult for me to feel morally ok voting for pretty much any candidate. I hear a lot of fellow Catholics (many whom I respect more than you can imagine) tell me that the only way to go is the pro-life candidate, but most if not all of them are republicans anyway and I wonder if they would find it so easy if the only pro-life candidate were the democrat.

    For me, the decision is Romney or not voting, and I’m leaning toward not voting, at least not checking the box for prez. I don’t know if I can feel ok voting for anyone.

  • Billy B

    @Carl: Hey man, I was tracking with you all the way until you got to talking about brain waves. Why would you change your opinion if an embryo has brain waves? Honestly, do brain waves really make that big of a difference when we’re talking about a woman’s free will and right to make decisions for her life? Is this science-related? Please explain.

  • Dani Sell

    ANolan, have you been asleep for he past two years? ObamaCare is essentially the same program Romney signed into law in the state of Massachusetts while governor. Google Romneycare and become informed.

  • ANolan

    Romney and Ryan do not support life. They are merely anti-abortion. That is not pro-life. They have no interest in providing health care – surely a pro-life issue – to people who cannot afford exhorbitant insurance rates or who, because of “pre-existing” conditions, cannot even get health care. They have no interest in a decent standard of living and fair tax rates – surely pro-life issues – for the working poor to middle class people. They have no interest in environmental matters, pollution and global warming – surely pro-life issues – however, they are greatly interested in preserving the rights of giant corporate interests (corporations and the people who run them) to plunder the earth in order to further enrich themselves. They have no interest in ending war, poverty, famine -surely pro-life issues – but would impoverish us all further by increasing the military budget and giving tax breaks to the rich. Mr. Obama may not be perfect but he’s a whole lot more pro-life than Romney/Ryan. I pray that the Holy Spirit guides this nation as it votes in November.

  • Carl Sobrado, R.N.

    I go to mass almost everyday, do my rosary almost everyday, do my liturgy of the hours almost everyday, and have chosen a profession that allows me to live my baptismal promises but I guess that makes me a Catholic-In-Name-Only because I am not voting for the GoP. Never have and never will.

    It is hard for me to justify voting red on just ONE issue versus the many issues trying that our country is facing.

    Just because I am pro-choice doesn’t make me favor abortion. Far from it. Am I supporting Abortion parties? NO. We are all granted free will. A women needs to make those decisions for herself and face the consequences of her actions.

    Also as a Registered Nurse, I am in a discipline that bridges science and spirituality especially in the final stages of life. A fertilized embryo has the potential for life, no more than your dividing skin cells are alive. If I accidentally scrape or cut myself, does that make me a person who embraces a “culture of death”? If an embryo has brain waves, I’ll change my opinion.

    I think if we as Catholics want to ban abortion across the spectrum, then we need to discuss preventive contraception. Preventive contraception also prevents the spread of disease by the way. And no, I was brought up Catholic all my life but I still had premarital sex until I came to my senses. However, I am glad I learned about condoms in a high school health education class because my parents sure didn’t teach me about the “birds and the bees.” The entire subject of human sexuality was avoided when I was growing up, to my detriment.

    Science is cool people; we need more of it. And yes, it is possible to reconcile science with spirituality. I’ve done it.

    I’ll say it once and I’ll say it again. This judgmental attitude that some of my Catholic brothers and sisters are taking is silly, especially after reading that no one should judge others in a Gospel reading at mass. Think about it.

    a younger Catholic who is also an R.N.

  • frank

    We should only support candidates that supports life.

  • Siobhan Quinn

    There are no Catholic swing voters. There are Catholic voters who vote for life and other non-negotiables and there are Catholics-In-Name-Only who vote for the culture of death and other issues/candidates who seek to destroy society. Catholics decide every single election in this country by their sheer numbers alone. Too bad that most Catholics do not seem to vote in such a way that is in line with their faith or Catholic Church teaching.

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