Much of the discussion about religion in the presidential campaign has focused on Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s actual affiliation and President Obama’s fictional one. But it is the faith of their running mates, Catholics Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, that could more likely influence the election.
Catholics, who have a presence on both national tickets for the first time, are second behind evangelical Protestants among the nation’s dominant religious groups. They fan out across demographics, composing a quarter of the adult population, according to the Census Bureau. Catholics don’t vote monolithically, but they could sway outcomes in several swing states.
The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, generally speaking, backs Democrats on immigration policy and Republicans on abortion policy. Both vice presidential candidates have run into trouble with their fellow Catholics. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote letters earlier this year protesting both the cuts to safety-net programs in the federal budget that Ryan wrote and Obama’s attempts to guarantee insurance coverage of contraception. Biden acknowledged that the administration “screwed up” in its initial effort on contraception coverage and reportedly worked internally to broker a compromise.
Catholics’ diverse political opinions and ethnicities make them hard to target; some side with Democrats on economic-justice grounds and others vote Republican because they oppose abortion. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted from June 28 to July 9, 51 percent of registered Catholic voters backed Obama or leaned toward him; 42 percent supported Romney or leaned his way. The president’s lead was slightly wider on social issues such as abortion rights and gay rights; Catholics gave him a 51-percent-to-34-percent advantage there.
The electoral value of Catholic voters stems largely from their prominence in battleground states, strategists in both parties say, pointing particularly to Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
“Probably more than any other time in our lifetime that I can think of, religion will play in this election and will matter in this election,” said John Brabender, chief strategist for Republican Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign, which aggressively highlighted Santorum’s Catholicism.
To that end, Ryan has frequently cited Catholic social doctrine in arguing for his economic policies, depicting conservative fiscal measures as moral imperatives. And Biden, a classic lunch-bucket Democrat, portrays social-welfare programs as the modern, federal answer to the Sermon on the Mount.
The target audience for these approaches, said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist specializing in the role of religion in politics, is centrist Catholics.
He calls them the political prize group among the four disparate Catholic voting blocs (the other three are low-turnout, heavily Democratic Latino Catholics; very conservative white Catholics; and very liberal white Catholics. Obama won moderate Catholics in 2008; President Bush captured them in 2004.
Both campaigns are pursuing a dual-track strategy. First, they are highlighting issues they think will appeal to those Catholic moderates. For Republicans, that’s private enterprise, making the government solvent, and religious liberty. For Democrats, it’s the social safety net, investments in education and health care, and, to a lesser extent, women’s rights.
Second, both campaigns are using Catholic activists to couch those issues in specifically Catholic terms. Broderick Johnson, a senior Obama campaign adviser who is leading Catholic outreach, said that the campaign is focused on communicating the link between issues and Catholic values through grassroots contact, using an organizational model it has embraced elsewhere to drill down into communities as deeply as possible.
When it comes to Catholics, both Romney (Mormon) and Obama (Protestant, though some voters still believe he is Muslim) are reaching for the sweet spot in the middle—the pitch that will sway moderate Catholics who are still cogitating on their choices.