Churchgoing Catholics returning to GOP fold

Gov. Sarah Palin has outsized impact on an important bloc in key battleground states.

Stephan Savoia/AP
Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, seen here stumping in Ohio Sept. 17, has helped the GOP gain ground among observant Catholic voters.
Mark Duncan/AP
Joseph Biden, the Democrats’ veep pick, is a Catholic who may help his ticket hold its ground among less-observant Catholics.

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.

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. They also argue that economic policies may be the most effective way to combat abortion. A new study from Catholics in Alliance, for instance, reports that greater economic aid to poor families and increased male employment correlate with lower abortion rates.

Obama worked to insert language in the Democratic Party platform that speaks of helping women who decide to have a child. His campaign says America “can do more” to support new mothers needing pre- and postnatal healthcare, parenting skills, and income assistance.

“The key for the Democrats is to start to draw some clear connections between issues like abortion and the economic root causes of those issues,” says Chris Korzen, founder of Catholics United. “In places like Pennsylvania and Ohio – swing states – it’s a losing strategy to dichotomize social- and economic-justice questions. Social justice is the best way to resolve the abortion question.”

The Democratic Party’s defense of abortion rights has cost it Catholic votes, including that of Carol Marie Siedenburg. She came to a Palin rally last weekend in Carson City, Nev., to hand out antiabortion literature. Just over a decade ago she favored abortion rights and voted for Democrat Bill Clinton. But that changed, she says, when she started going to weekly mass and researched deeply her church’s reasoning on “life issues.”

“I don’t feel that any one party is perfect, but there are some issues that are more equal than others, [including] the issue of life,” says Ms. Siedenburg, who plans to vote McCain-Palin.

Catholics who attend mass every week, as does Siedenburg, are usually passionate foes of abortion. Regardless of Obama’s willingness to talk about a moral dimension to abortion, these voters struggle with his record in support of abortion rights, including a controversial vote in Illinois against the so-called born-alive infants bill. (The legislation sought to define every infant born alive – including one who survived an abortion procedure – as a human in the eyes of the law.)

A kinship with Sarah Palin

Yet a slim majority of Catholics overall actually favor abortion rights.

One of those is Cynthia Feyma. Until recently she was considering sitting out this presidential election. But last weekend she joined the crowd of thousands in Carson City chanting “Sarah! Sarah! Sarah!”

Ms. Feyma, who says she “occasionally” attends mass, feels a kinship with Palin’s values. (Palin, baptized a Catholic as an infant, now attends a nondenominational Bible church.) For Feyma, that means patriotism and personal character more than anything related to Catholic social teaching. “They have American values: What’s right for the US is No. 1,” she says of the GOP ticket. “She’s honest, down-to-earth, not a feminist.” As for fellow Catholic Joseph Biden, the Democrats’ vice presidential pick? Feyma says he’s not independent enough.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a political scientist at Georgetown University, explains why Palin may be connecting with certain Catholic voters. “Catholic social teaching will win you about three votes, all of them in Boston,” he says. “Anyone for whom ideas matter made up their mind four years ago. For the swing voters, you have to connect to them ... on the gut level.”
Indeed, Feyma and other newly energized voters at the rally didn’t cite Palin’s stance on issues, but rather her persona as an outsider and – as seen by the many “Rosie the Riveter” T-shirts – a can-do woman.

Identifying with a Republican leader may be new for some Catholic women.

“The gender gap persisted not because women chose the Democratic Party. But men moved to the Republican Party, and women essentially stayed,” says Lara Brown, a political scientist at Villanova University. “Palin gives these women who are culturally conservative an opportunity to say, ‘Wow, someone represents me.’ ”

Senator Biden has the ability to appeal on identity, too, argues Father Reese. “Biden is a real Catholic from a working-class background who’s comfortable talking to high-school-educated people. This is the most important swing vote.”

While Obama says “disingenuous” a lot, Biden will say “malarkey.” Obama can do more to connect with Catholics, Reese says, by pointing out that he was taught by nuns in Indonesia and that some of his community organizing back in Chicago was funded by Catholic groups.

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