Now that Mitt Romney has officially secured enough delegates with his Texas primary victory to clinch the Republican nomination, Mormons seem like a block of voters the Republicans can count on come November. This isn’t just because Mr. Romney is Mormon.
It’s because the Republican Party is now securing support from voters of every major religion in the United States, with the exception of Islam.
For nearly three decades Christian Evangelicals have tended to be reliably Republican. (Today, 70 percent of white evangelical Protestants support the GOP.) But now Mormons, Jews, and Catholics are getting on board with the party in increasing numbers. If the GOP is able to consolidate the support of the major religions in the US, Romney and other Republican candidates stand to win big at the polling booth in 2012 and well beyond.
Certainly, voters of a certain religion don’t always vote as a bloc, and recent trends indicate that some young Evangelicals are rejecting the “partisan pulpit” and embracing traditionally liberal or Democratic values. But these religious groupings have had historic party allegiances that played out on election day as confirmed by the Pew Research Center Survey in 2009 following the 2008 presidential election.
Seeing a Mormon frontrunner in Romney may have helped earn Mormon support for the GOP, but the social conservative dimensions of the Republican platform also fit nicely within the Mormon faith. A strong commitment to traditional family values is the bedrock of both Mormonism and Republicanism.
At the graduation ceremony at Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell, Romney spoke of a worldview shared by his religion and Evangelicals; one committed to traditional family values – a direct refutation of President Obama’s stance on same-sex marriage. A recent Pew survey found that Mormon support for the Republican party has grown from 68 percent in 2008 to 80 percent in early 2012.
Traditionally Democrats have been able to count on the support of Jewish voters. But when Barack Obama came out in support of a proposal that would return Israel to its 1967 borders, there was clear backlash among the Jewish and pro-Israeli communities. Republicans were able to align themselves with Jews and Israeli leaders in denouncing the proposal as a threat to Israel’s security.
During the Republican debates, whenever asked, each candidate adamantly supported Israel, and several pledged to go to war on Israel’s behalf. Newt Gingrich went so far as to suggest that Palestinians are an invented people – a position that won favor with his largest contributor, Jewish casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Pew data indicate that while 65 percent of Jewish voters identify with or lean toward the Democratic party, that number is down from 2008. Meanwhile, Jewish support for Republicans has increased by 9 percentage points since 2008.
Catholics have also begun to realign themselves with the GOP. Since 1960, when John F. Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon, Catholics have been reliable Democrats. But the tide is shifting. From 2008 to present, Catholic support for the GOP has increased by 6 percentage points to a point where a majority of Catholics no longer identify with or lean toward Democrats.
Republicans have, intentionally or not, become more appealing to Catholics for at least two reasons. First, certain aspects of the social policy platform of the Republican Party are consistent with Catholic doctrine. Republican opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion is more consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church than the Democratic positions on these issues.
The Republicans also won over many Catholics, particularly leaders of the Catholic Church, when they came to the defense of Catholic institutions that sought an exemption from portions of the Affordable Care Act that would have forced them to provide birth control coverage for their employees – which runs counter to the church’s official opposition to contraception.
Second, Republican leaders who are Catholic have been making it a point to stress the connection between their religion and their political views in a way Democrats do not. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are both Catholic – Mr. Gingrich having converted much later in life – and each has made it clear that their religious views inform their political views.
Paul Ryan recently caused a stir when he pronounced that his budget proposal was inspired by his commitment to Catholic social teachings. But Joe Biden, arguably the most visible Catholic Democrat, has yet to dismiss any of his Republican foes or defend any Obama administration policies by referencing Catholic teachings. Republicans embrace their Catholicism while Democratic leaders seem to run away from it.
When added up, these developments indicate that the Republican Party may be able to successfully add to its base by taking from the traditional religious bases of Democrats.
If intentional, this is a heady move by Republicans. For example, courting the Catholic vote in particular has two major advantages.
First, it deprives the Democrats of a reliable base of support. Instead of going after independents or undecided voters, Republicans have been able to chip away at the Democrat’s base by bringing Catholics to their side. The effect of this shift has not been felt significantly at the voting booth yet, but the anecdotal evidence discussed above and polling data project a noticeable impact in 2012 and beyond.
Second, pursuing Catholic voters could help Republicans attract Latino voters – a group of voters that may help decide the outcome of the 2012 presidential election. Latino voters are overwhelmingly Catholic and Democratic. And despite what commentators on the left suggest, Latinos are not single-issue voters. Nor do they all vote or live or identify as a bloc.
Polling suggests that one of the issues Latino voters care most about is jobs – just like other voters. Immigration is also an important issue among Latino voters – which could hurt the Republicans – but it is not the most important issue. A recent Pew survey found that among registered Latino voters, immigration ranks behind jobs, education, health care, taxes, and even the federal budget deficit on a list of issues they feel are “extremely important.”
This means that if Republicans can convince Latinos that the GOP has a more attractive platform on social issues, they may be able to attract some Latino voters – not all, of course, but perhaps some who otherwise would have been lost due to immigration policy.
The Republican Party seems to be building a coalition of religious voters. That is, voters who find the Republican domestic and foreign policy positions attractive for religious reasons. Meanwhile, few Democratic politicians connect their religious values to their politics as publicly as some Republicans.
Despite all the deficits the Republicans have to overcome, if they have “God in their corner,” they may very well prevail.
Kyle Scott teaches American politics and constitutional law at Duke University. His commentary on current events has appeared in Forbes, Reuters.com, The Christian Science Monitor, Foxnews.com, and dozens of regional outlets including the Charlotte Observer, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Baltimore Sun.