By writer, Ben Arnoldy
The Christian Science Monitor
Observant Catholics are returning to the Republican fold now that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has joined the GOP ticket - a shift that looks to be more enduring than a postconvention bounce. If the trend sticks, it will mark a partial setback for Democrats and the Obama campaign, who have vied vigorously for the pivotal votes of Roman Catholics.
Before the national political conventions, presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain were about splitting the votes of white Catholics who attend church weekly. That was a weak showing for the GOP's Senator McCain; in 2004, President Bush carried this group 3 to 2.
McCain, however, has now opened a 16 percentage point lead among these Catholics, according to a poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center. Still, there is good news for Senator Obama among Catholic voters: He continues to gain among Hispanics, two-thirds of whom are Catholic, and he is even with McCain in support among Catholics who attend mass occasionally or never.
Catholics are an important subset in presidential elections. More than 40 percent of them are unaffiliated with either party. In key battleground states in the Midwest and the Southwest, they make up as much as one-third of a state's electorate.
But Catholics are not a monolithic bloc of voters.
"There's a contradiction: There is no 'Catholic vote,' and it's important," says John White, professor of politics at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
Like most political analysts, he sees Catholics as key swing voters who are fragmented along ethnic lines - Hispanic versus European ancestry - and by frequency of church attendance.
"Democrats have to figure out how to reach church-minded Catholics. The problem for Republicans is how to reach out to people who don't have ties to a church institution," says Mr. White.
For decades, Catholics have been leaving their traditional home in the Democratic Party, with more-observant Catholics in the vanguard. But during the past four years, some of those recent Republicans reconsidered, swelling the ranks of the unaffiliated. McCain appears to have won many of them back.
"We have strong evidence that the Palin pick was the big part of it," says Scott Keeter, director of survey research at Pew. Governor Palin's large family and her decision to bear her fifth child despite a diagnosis of Down syndrome mean she embodies antiabortion beliefs dear to many observant Catholics. But McCain's pick also reassured these voters on "a whole constellation of values issues that are important to conservative Christians," he adds.
The question now is whether either campaign can advance its position beyond its 2004 levels with any of the Catholic subgroups.
Obama seems well on his way with Hispanics in general, trumping McCain 65 percent to 31 percent in a Zogby Interactive poll taken last week. Mr. Bush in 2004 got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote.
That leaves white, less-observant Catholics.
"To the extent that there would be a group within the Catholic population that is swingable, it would not be the frequent mass- attending [nor] those who never attend church," says David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. "In the middle, however, is a fairly large group of Catholics who still think of themselves as Catholic and they still go to church periodically."
These "moderately committed Catholics" share many of the economic- and national-security concerns of the voting public at large, he says, but may be pulled by values issues more than secular voters are.
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