The first presidential election with Catholics on both national tickets has underscored divisions among Catholics over policy priorities and shone a spotlight on the way Hispanic Catholics are changing the Catholic and national electorates.
The country has traveled far since the 1960 election, when then-candidate John F. Kennedy captured 82 percent of votes from his fellow Catholics. In recent decades, American Catholics have become a swing group, siding with the winner of the popular vote since 1972. This year, President Obama won them by only 2 points.
Modern divisions within the faith are drawn along the lines of race and ethnicity (white vs. Hispanic), religiosity (frequency of Mass attendance), and whether to focus on social justice and poverty or abortion and contraception. In the 2012 election, Vice President Joe Biden and GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan “gave a face to these kind of two competing emphases in the Catholic Church,” said Robert Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.
Nearly two-thirds of likely Catholic voters interviewed in September as part of PRRI’s American Values Survey said that the Catholic Church should focus its public-policy statements more on social justice and poverty assistance even if it means sacrificing a concentration on abortion issues; roughly three in 10 said the opposite. Likely Catholic voters in this preelection survey who were oriented toward social-justice issues planned to vote for President Obama, 60 percent to 37 percent, and likely Catholic voters who want the church to fight abortion planned to give GOP nominee Mitt Romney their support by a 40-point margin, 67 percent to 27 percent.
Perhaps the highest-profile faith-related issue on the campaign trail was an Obama administration rule that required Catholic-affiliated institutions to offer birth control in their employee insurance plans. The rule was changed so that insurance companies and not the institutions themselves paid for the coverage. But that didn’t satisfy many critics and the contraception issue became a major topic of ads and attacks by both sides.
The PRRI survey suggests that the Republicans’ attempt to use the coverage mandate as a wedge issue on the campaign trail was not effective. Slightly more than half of Catholics supported the principle that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to provide their employees with no-cost contraception in both February (52 percent) and September (54 percent). Their level of support was statistically unchanged, even as the mandate became a focus of the presidential campaign as well as the subject of a two-week protest by Catholic bishops. Support was significantly lower among white Catholics — 41 percent in February and 45 percent in September — but also was statistically unchanged.
"It certainly did not shift opinion,” Jones said of the contraception issue. Furthermore, he said, the group’s studies did not show a downturn in support for the president among Catholics.
A new PRRI survey conducted right after the election and released on Thursday demonstrates just how reliant the Republican Party has become on white Christians: Nearly eight in 10 of Romney’s voters identified as such, compared with only 35 percent of Obama voters.
Obama’s huge lead with Hispanic Catholics — 75 percent to Romney’s 21 percent, according to exit poll data compiled by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life — helped him win the overall Catholic vote despite his drop in support among white Catholics (Obama received 47 percent of the white Catholic vote in 2008 but only 40 percent in 2012). Overall, he won the Catholic vote by a slim 50 percent to 48 percent, well below the 9-point lead he enjoyed over Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2008.
Latinos are on their way to transforming the Catholic vote in the same way they are transforming the American electorate. “In a very short 12 years the ratio of white to Hispanic Catholics has been cut in half and all of the trends seem to be supporting that we’ll see that trend continuing,” said Jones. “The number of white Catholics is actually shrinking, while the number of Hispanic Catholics is actually growing.”
According to multiple years of exit-poll data compiled by Pew in 2012, Hispanic Catholics rose to 21 percent of the Catholic vote in 2008, compared with 13 percent in 2000 (they urge caution about the data because methods of identifying Hispanic respondents have changed over the years and Spanish-language exit-poll questionnaires are not always available). The preelection American Values Survey showed that 29 percent of American Catholics are Hispanic, and, in another statistic that does not bode well for Republicans, over half (52 percent) of Catholics aged 18 to 34 are Hispanic.
The 2012 preelection American Values Survey included 648 Catholics and a subset of 457 likely Catholic voters, and was conducted Sept. 13-30. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.2 percentage points for the Catholics and 5 points for the likely voters. PRRI’s February Religion and Politics Tracking Poll, which measured Catholic attitudes about birth control, was conducted Feb. 2-5. The margin of error for interviews with 219 Catholics was plus or minus 6.6 percentage points.