In 2008, Barack Obama won the Catholic vote by nine points, 54/45, over John McCain on his way to a seven-point victory in the national popular vote. Three months after announcing the HHS mandate that would force religious hospitals, schools, and charities to fund contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients, Obama has lost that edge among the tens of millions of Catholic voters. A new Gallup poll shows Obama in a dead heat with Mitt Romney, at just about the same level as McCain got in 2008:
Catholic voters in the United States are evenly split in their support for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney for president, mirroring the national trend. However, Hispanic Catholics — about 18% of the total group of Catholic voters — are overwhelmingly likely to support Obama over Romney, while a majority of non-Hispanic white Catholics support Romney.
Obama led Romney by one percentage point, 46% to 45%, among the more than 8,000 registered voters interviewed as part of Gallup Daily tracking conducted April 11-30. Among the 1,915 Catholics interviewed during that time, support for Obama and Romney was almost the same, with 46% support for Obama and 46% for Romney.
Catholics’ divided preferences at this point contrast with those of the largest religious group in the country, Protestants, whose support swings to Romney by 51% to 41%. The split in Catholics’ preferences also differs from the choice among those who identify with another religion or no religion at all, a group that clearly supports Obama, by 58% to 33%.
The Protestant vote is going to be a problem for Obama, too. He lost Protestants to McCain by the same numbers, 45/54. However, the difference in both numbers is that Obama is a known quantity this time, unlike in 2008. Those who remain undecided now are much less likely to break towards the incumbent. Romney already has a ten-point lead among Protestants, and could easily stretch it out to the mid-teens by Election Day. Protestants made up 54% of the electorate in 2008, and it’s probably a safe bet that they’ll turn out even stronger in 2012.
Obama won despite the disadvantage mainly because of his strength among Catholics. Gallup tries to soften the blow by noting that Obama does very well among Hispanic Catholics, 70/20, but they are only about 18% of the bloc. Obama is deeply unpopular among non-Hispanic Catholics, 38/55. Whatever else happens, the Catholic vote won’t come to Obama’s rescue in 2012 as it did in 2008.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops have not relented one iota on the issue of the HHS mandate, which means these numbers won’t be improving any time soon. That may even start having an impact on Obama’s lead among Hispanic Catholics. Obama will have to defend this intrusion on religious expression, thanks to the USCCB’s energetic attacks, but the administration will have to do better than this:
In sworn testimony before the House Education and Workforce Committee, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that her general counsel did not write a legal memo explaining the religious freedom issues in the birth control mandate. During the same line of questioning, Sebelius also admitted to being unfamiliar with several important Supreme Court religious freedom cases.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said that he knew of only three tests that the Supreme Court has used to balance a constitutionally protected freedom against a policy goal. He described those three tests and then asked Sebelius last Thursday, “Which of those three constitutional balancing tests were you making reference to when you said you ‘balanced’ things?”
“Congressman, I’m not a lawyer and I don’t pretend to understand the nuances of the constitutional balancing tests,” Sebelius answered.
“Before this rule was promulgated, did you read any of the Supreme Court cases on religious liberty?” Gowdy later asked.
Sebelius answered that she did not.
Chris Cillizza and Rachel Weiner underscore the importance of this bloc:
As Gallup’s Frank Newport notes in a memo on the findings, Catholics have historically been a Democratic-leaning constituency — the party can thank John F. Kennedy for that one — but in recent decades have become more of a toss-up voting bloc.
The eight presidential elections reveal how up for grabs Catholics truly. The Republican nominee has carried Catholics four times, the Democratic nominee has carried Catholics four times. …
Keep an eye on the Catholic vote between now and November. How it goes will tell you a lot about who is going to be the next president.
And as long as the bishops maintain the fight against the Obama administration — and they defend the mandate so badly — it won’t be Obama who wins this bloc.