Stop Talking About the ‘Catholic Vote’! It Doesn’t Exist
When the Obama administration announced last month that religiously-affiliated institutions would be required to provide health plans covering contraception, there was widespread talk that a wedge issue was emerging. Several prominent Catholic liberals were quick to point out that Obama would lose the Catholic vote and seriously damage his re-election prospects. But as Republican politicians gleefully piled on, the evidence for such a dire development—and indeed, for the continued existence of anything you could describe as a “Catholic vote”—has diminished almost daily.
Of course, the White House responded to the Catholic Bishops’ furor with a deft maneuver that changed the political dynamics of the issue, offering a compromise that allowed the cost of contraception coverage to be borne by insurance companies, not the religiously-affiliated institutions themselves. This step won immediate praise from the leadership of the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. But the split among Catholic elites simply reinforced the more fundamental reality: American Catholics are hardly monolithic, even on issues supposedly touching on the Church’s authority and teachings.
Polling of Americans on the contraception mandate controversy has produced significantly varying results, often depending on when the poll was taken and question wording and order. But no survey has shown a significant difference between Catholics and other voters on this issue. (John Sides found some evidence of a drop in approval ratings for Obama among highly-observant and conservative Catholics, but conceded that these are largely already Obama opponents.) Among the many polls, the most credible is perhaps a Democracy Corps survey that formulates the positions of the administration and of the Bishops in their own words. The results show that Catholics support the administration’s position by a 49-42 margin—barely distinguishable from the full pool of respondents, who support the administration’s position by a 49-43 margin.
This should come as no particular surprise to anyone familiar with the history of U.S. Catholic lay attitudes on issues where the Church hierarchy has taken strong positions. The most thorough recent research on public opinion involving abortion and same-sex marriage—issues where the Catholic Church has clear, unambiguous positions that are frequently communicated to the laity via channels ranging from papal encyclicals to the parish pulpit—comes from the Public Religion Research Institute, which did a major survey examining the views of Americans of differing confessional backgrounds in June of last year. At that time, 56 percent of all Americans and 54 percent of Catholics indicated they thought abortions should be legal in all or most circumstances. Only 29 percent of white evangelical Protestants, however, support legalized abortion—another indication that the anti-choice base in American politics is now more Protestant than Catholic.