Polling analysts believe that the vote of Catholics in the U.S. remains important and could play a crucial role in the upcoming presidential election.
Research associate Dr. Mark M. Gray told CNA on May 7 that Catholics remain “an important subgroup” in the U.S. electorate.
Gray, who works as director of Catholic polls for Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, believes it is likely that the Catholic vote will be even more important in this election year than it has been in the past.
Historically, the “Catholic vote” has been considered important because the candidate who receives the majority of the votes cast by Catholics generally wins the election, he explained.
A Gallup survey conducted in April 2012 found Catholic registered voters split between presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Both candidates received 46 percent of the Catholic vote, with 8 percent responding as “other” or “undecided.”
These numbers were nearly identical to the results among total registered voters, who favored Obama over Romney by a 46-45 percent vote during the same time period.
Dr. Frank Newport, Gallup's Editor in Chief, agreed that Catholics have the potential to shape the upcoming presidential election.
Catholics make up a “huge group of voters” in the United States, he told CNA.
Newport observed that the Catholic vote so far in 2012 appears to follow the 2008 pattern of aligning closely with the national average, although differences in race and Church attendance account for a “significant difference” in voting patterns.
But while they tend to vote “very much like the national average,” Catholics are “certainly” still important to the election and will be taken into account by campaign strategists, he said.
“They’re a swing group,” he explained. “The Catholics are of interest because taken as a whole, they could go either way.”
Gray explained that overall, Catholics fit in the middle of evangelical Protestants, who tend to vote for Republican candidates, and individuals with no religious affiliation, who tend to vote for Democratic candidates.
Catholics tend to fall in between, he explained, so whichever way they lean in a given election tends to be a good indication of where the election is headed.
Gray said that the biggest difference in this election is that “the Church is one of the bigger issues” this year.
The Catholic Church has played a prominent role in recent political discussions, particularly in the face of the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, which will require employers to offer health insurance that covers contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
Bishops from every diocese in the U.S. have spoken out against the mandate and the devastating threat it poses to freedom of conscience for Catholics and members of other faiths.
Such concerns about religious liberty have led to a “heightened level” of discussion and activity within the Catholic community, said Gray. As a result, the U.S. is seeing a “higher profile” for “all things Catholic” than it has in previous years.
People are talking about Church issues as they discuss politics in the election year, and the faithful “are hearing more” from Church leaders, he added.
In addition to normal statements issued by Catholic leaders before an election, he explained, there is also a significant focus on the importance of voting for religious freedom.
The Church’s role in the religious liberty debate could have a significant impact as the nation chooses its next president, he said.
Newport agreed that Catholics should not be overlooked as prominent actors in the 2012 election. He explained that a tight election ultimately comes down to movement in small segments of the electorate that are not already locked in to either candidate.
“Any group in that context can make a difference,” he said.
With Catholics making up nearly one-fourth of U.S. voters today, he observed, they could “be a critical group” in determining the outcome of the election in November.