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
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
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
New political activism among liberal Catholics
Here the Obama camp might benefit from new political energy among
Catholic progressives. Catholics United, Catholics in Alliance for
the Common Good, and other groups emphasize how Catholic social
teaching applies to a range of issues, from war to the safety net
for the poor. …