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.


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