Catholics lean toward Dems, but “moderates” could swing this election
If all Catholics listened to their bishops, then it would be easy to predict how one of the biggest blocs in the country would vote.
But they don’t. And it isn’t.
This election season, U.S. bishops have orchestrated a forceful campaign urging Catholics, who make up at least 22 percent of the 2012 electorate, to vote in accordance with the foundational issues of their faith: the sanctity of life and of marriage.
Yet recent research suggests the Romney-Ryan Republican ticket, which, like the Church, opposes abortion on demand, can’t count on the Catholic vote.
“There’s no doubt there’s been a concerted effort by the bishops to pressure Catholics into voting their way,” said Jon O’Brien, president of the national group Catholics for Choice. “They’ve been at us in Mass. But Catholics resoundingly reject the influence of the hierarchy in the political arena.”
Just like other Americans, O’Brien said, Catholics care most about the bread-and-butter issues affecting families.
So far this year, neither President Barack Obama nor Republican challenger Mitt Romney has established a consistently strong lead among Catholic voters as a whole, according to 2012 survey data aggregated through early October by the Pew Research Center.
Divided between parties
Catholics are some of the most firmly entrenched of partisan voters, but they are divided between the two parties: 48 percent are Democrats or lean that way, and 44 percent are Republicans or lean GOP, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
While political analysts talk about “the Catholic swing vote,” only an increasingly small slice of the demographic is really up for grabs, Pew analysts said.
It is “white Catholic moderates” who have swung elections and could swing this one, the Pew analysts said.
About 40 percent of Catholics — white liberals, Latinos and other minorities — have reliably voted for Democrats in the past three elections. About 25 percent of Catholic voters — white conservatives — have been reliable Republican supporters and have been campaigning for Romney this election.
In 2008, the Catholic vote swung hard in Obama’s direction. In 2000 and 2004, Catholic moderates favored George W. Bush.
White moderate Catholics are a big group, but their share has been declining — from 42 percent of Catholics in 2000 to 32 percent in 2008. Conservatives have been gaining ground.
Yet Catholic bishops and both parties are working hard to persuade moderate Catholics. Researchers are working hard to count them.
Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila declined to be interviewed for this story but said in a recent column on the election that Catholics “must make political choices according to the teaching of our Church.”
“The problem is that no political party, and usually no candidate, fully represents the Church’s position on important moral issues,” Aquila wrote. “Though there are a host of real moral issues for Catholics in public and political life to consider … the right to life must always be the first consideration of Catholics.”
The archdiocese also promotes aVoter’s Guide for Serious Catholics.
“The Catholic bishops’ attempts to direct Catholic voters in our upcoming elections have made a habit out of combining factual ignorance with terrible theology,” said Terrance R. Kelly, a Denver lawyer and occasional contributor to Hark, The Denver Post’s religion blog.
“Most of the Catholics whose values I share find a way to go to Mass at times and places with communities who reject the bishops’ current political goals and political instructions,” Kelly said. “We avoid the bad preaching. It is an old Catholic custom.”
Liberal on social issues
Pew analysts said Catholic moderates are closer to Catholic liberals when it comes to social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage but generally prefer a smaller role for government.
Moderates were closely divided between candidates in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections but favored Obama in 2008. They were again leaning toward Obama this election before the presidential debates — post-debate analyses aren’t available.
Last week, Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan raised the political stakes for Catholics, adding to his list of “non-negotiables.” Politicians’ support for the Obama administration’s mandate for insurance coverage of contraceptives — along with abortion rights, embryonic stem-cell research, mercy killing and same-sex marriage — could disqualify a candidate from receiving Holy Communion in his diocese, Sheridan recently told The Gazette.
Catholic voters don’t enjoy much more leeway than politicians.
“It would be very difficult for me to understand how, if there are two candidates quite far apart in their positions on these matters, I could vote for the one who consistently opposes Church teachings simply because he might be in favor of a few good things,” Sheridan said.
A few good things — such as immigration reform, help for the poor and the concept of the common good — were among the social values prompting a stand bya group of about 170 Catholic theologians, academics and ministers concerned for the integrity of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
“We write to hold up aspects of the Church’s social doctrine that are profoundly relevant to the challenges our nation faces at this moment in history, yet are in danger of being ignored,” they said on a website called “On All Our Shoulders.”
This article was originally published by the Denver Post.