Political changes in recent years could mean that Catholics play an important role in the upcoming presidential election, but in a new way, say political analysts.
Dr. John Kenneth White, a political scientist at The Catholic University of America, explained that Hispanics – many of whom are Catholic – could be a “definitive group” in deciding the 2012 presidential election.
The 2012 election is unique, he told CNA on Aug. 23, noting that not only are both contenders for Vice President Catholic, but that neither candidate from either major U.S. party is a white Protestant.
The unprecedented situation has led to an unexpected amount of attention on Catholics, he said.
However, he explained, “it’s very hard to talk about the Catholic vote in generic terms” because the vote of Catholics is “incredibly diversified.”
White observed that in 1960s, Catholic self-identification was high and the faithful largely voted as a single bloc.
In recent elections, however, the Catholic vote has looked more like the national vote, he said.
Catholic identity has decreased, he added, and it is “not necessarily the first identity people bring with them into the ballot box.”
Rather, Catholics tend to think of themselves by their race, gender and other distinguishing factors, he said. The voting habits of the faithful can therefore be better analyzed by carving out groups based on factors such as Mass attendance and ethnicity.
A blog post issued by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate agreed with this observation, adding that membership in a union, unemployment and military service also factor into the way that Catholics cast their ballots.
An Aug. 3 blog post on the research center’s website noted that while Catholics have made up approximately 25 percent of the total electorate in recent elections, they make up about 19 percent of the total voting age population in the 16 states that remain the most competitive this year.
Catholics account for “the largest share of the voting age population” in the competitive states of New Mexico, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and they could also be a significant “swing vote” in Florida, Nevada and Ohio, it said.
While polls indicate that Catholics are split in their candidate preference, it is difficult to make predictions about the election so far out, especially since both national conventions and the candidates’ debates could still be key in swaying voters, the blog post noted.
However, it suggested, “the votes of those without a religious affiliation may be more decisive to the election outcome” than those of Catholics.
Nevertheless, White believes that both national campaigns are actively trying to court the Catholic electorate.
“They both see the Catholic vote as being important,” he said.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney recently announced that Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York would be offering the final benediction at the Republican National Convention on Aug. 30.
The announcement drew national attention, particularly since Cardinal Dolan – who leads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – has been a vocal opponent of the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, which requires employers to offer health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and early abortion-inducing drugs.
White believes that the controversial mandate, which has drawn strong criticism from Church leaders, will have an impact on the vote of Catholics, “especially among frequent Church attendees.”
But the Obama campaign is “absolutely” trying to reach out to Catholics as well, in an effort that “takes on many different forms,” White added, explaining that a big part of this is the campaign’s outreach to Hispanic voters, which tend to overlap with Catholics.
And as a “leading minority” in many areas, Hispanics could be “a decisive number” in some swing states, he said.
White thinks the Hispanic vote will be “absolutely critical” in determining the outcome of the election.
“At the end of the day, that vote seems to be a lot more unified,” he said.