Yet another poll – this one from CNN/ORC International – indicates that the closely watched Ohio primary is going to come down to the wire, with Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in what is effectively a statistical tie. The D/R/I split doesn’t really come into the picture on this one for our purposes, as it’s sampling just registered Republican voters for the key issue questions involved. But one demographic cut of this particular survey holds a surprise for some observers.
“The surprise is that the Catholic candidate, Santorum, is losing the Catholic vote,” says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. “Among Ohio Catholics who are likely to vote on Super Tuesday, 39% back Romney compared to 33% who support Santorum. Santorum has an advantage among Protestants by a 35%-to-29% margin.”
Romney’s advantage among Catholics is within the sampling error. Last week exit polls in neighboring Michigan indicated Romney had an advantage with Catholic voters in that state as well. Both Michigan and Ohio have sizeable Catholic populations.
Catholics have been in the news a lot of late, particularly with the HHS mandate sucking the air out of the room far too often. Combine that with Cardinal Timothy Dolan calling on all good Catholic soldiers to go to war in a freedom of religion battle, and there’s certainly some gravitational pull out there for establishing a unified front. And if that were the case, who do you think Catholic voters might line up with?
Rick Santorum is not only a Catholic himself but has been out there on the front lines of that particular issue on nearly every campaign stop. And yet, somehow, Mitt is carrying the Catholic vote in the Buckeye State. How do we explain this and what sort of lesson can we take away?
First, the “Mormon Problem” obviously isn’t as much of a problem as some were hinting at last year. Primary voters seem to be evaluating each candidate on their own merits, not by pigeonhole demographics. But even more than that, we once again see the folly of trying to predict voter reactions based on labels. You can no more define what “a Catholic voter” will do than you can say “what Hispanic voters think.” Everyone is setting their own priorities.
And for that matter, voters may well be seeing both Romney and Santorum as being solid on the religious liberty front and looking further down their list of priorities to make a choice. And the poll also shows that electability is high on the list of reasons given for making a choice, and Romney is still winning that battle, albeit by a slim margin.