How Catholics could decide the presidential election

A new study shows that Catholics sit closer to the American political middle than any other major religious group, and they make up a sizable chunk of voters in six key swing states.

Mike Segar/REUTERS/File
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, delivers the closing benediction during the final session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 30.

A new report points to the important role that Roman Catholics could play in November's presidential election, showing that they are almost evenly split between President Obama and Mitt Romney and that they are open to both candidates' views of the role the government should play in helping the poor.

Moreover, 2008 exit polls show that at least 23 percent of voters in key swing states such as Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin were Catholic, suggesting that their votes could prove decisive in a tight race this year.

Among the five main religious groups studied by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution, three take clear sides, both in the presidential race and on the role the government should play in society, according to a study of 3,000 likely voters released Monday.

Black Protestants and Americans unaffiliated with any religion generally favor Mr. Obama and are comparatively more supportive of government programs to help the poor. Meanwhile, white Evangelicals generally line up with Mr. Romney and take a more negative view of government-assistance programs.

In the middle are white mainline Protestants and Catholics, who together make up about one-third of the population. But while white mainline Protestants show a small but significant tilt toward Obama (52 percent to 45 percent), Catholic voters are evenly divided, with 49 percent favoring Obama and 47 percent favoring Romney. That is within the survey’s margin of error of two percentage points.

They are also open to both liberal and conservative messages on the social safety net – an issue central to the two candidates' visions for the federal budget.

On one hand, 65 percent of Catholics say that government policies aimed at helping the poor serve as a crucial safety net. This figure is roughly in line with those for white mainline Protestants and the country as a whole, suggesting Catholics sit in the political middle and are open to Obama's left-of-center policies. (By contrast, 84 percent of black Protestants see the safety net as crucial, while only 53 percent of Evangelicals do.) 

“You can see why Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comments were so controversial,” said E.J. Dionne, referring to a surreptitiously recorded video of Romney saying roughly half of Americans “are dependent upon government” and “believe that they are victims.”

“You can understand there why the Obama campaign is still running a lot of ads around the 47 percent remark,” continued Mr. Dionne, a liberal columnist and Brookings fellow who contributed to the PRRI report, during a roundtable for reporters on Monday.

Yet Catholics – again like mainline Protestants and the American middle – are skeptical of government support for the poor when the question is framed around the term "welfare," making them receptive to Romney's right-of-center proposals.

When asked whether most welfare recipients were "genuinely in need of help" or "taking advantage of the system,” a plurality of Catholics (48 percent to 41 percent) sided with the assessment that recipients were "taking advantage." For the nation as a whole and mainline Protestants, 46 percent said recipients were taking advantage. Meanwhile, 56 percent of white Evangelicals agreed with that statement, while 62 percent of black Protestants said recipients were "genuinely in need of help."

“The word ‘welfare’ is radioactive,” said Dionne. If welfare “is the dominant framing in the way that people think about these issues of distributive justice, you have the conservative side of the argument has a much better chance of winning.”

That nuance hasn’t been lost on the Romney campaign, which ran a series of advertisements hammering the Obama administration over a change to welfare’s work requirement laws, though independent fact checkers have taken issue with the truth of those ads.

In a close race, movement from any faith group to another could be decisive. But Catholics have long been an electoral bellwether: Since 1972, the candidate who has claimed the most Catholic votes has wound up in the White House.

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