Presidential debate reflects Catholic concerns over economy

Obama And Romney Square Off In First Presidential Debate In Denver Credit Michael Reynolds Pool Getty Images News Getty Images CNA500x320 US Catholic News 10 4 12 President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney shake hands after the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012. | Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Economic issues dominated the discussion at the first presidential debate of the election season, reflecting the widespread concern among Catholics, along with other American voters, about the national economy.

Frank Newport, editor in chief of Gallup, told CNA that when American voters are asked to rank election issues in order of importance, "the economy swamps everything else."

Oct. 3 marked the first presidential debate of the 2012 election season. President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney squared off in a 90-minute debate at the University of Denver in Colorado.

The debate had a largely economic tone, as candidates talked about the nation's struggling economy, high unemployment levels and soaring debt. They also discussed the role of government, health care reform and aid programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

Romney charged that Obama has failed to provide effective economic leadership over the past four years, while the president argued that Romney's plan to reduce the deficit without raising taxes is unrealistic.

Prominent moral issues such as abortion, "gay marriage" and the federal contraception mandate were not discussed in the first meeting of the two contenders.

However, when asked about the federal deficit, Romney responded, "I think it's not just an economic issue. I think it's a moral issue."

"I think it's frankly not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation," he said.

Newport explained that it is hard to judge how many Catholics would agree with Romney's assessment of the debt as a critical "moral issue" because the question has not been commonly raised in polls.

However, he said, "Catholics are average on a lot of things" and tend to be representative of the general electorate on many campaign issues.

In September, Gallup asked voters about their perceptions of where the economy was headed. Newport said that "Catholics were exactly like the overall average."

Among all Americans, 41 percent believed the economy was getting better, while 54 percent believed it was getting worse. Among Catholics, 41 percent believed the economy was getting better, while 53 percent believed it was getting worse.

Newport said that this pattern of Catholics tending to "mirror" the general American electorate holds true on many topics. And U.S. voters consistently rank the economy at the top of their list of concerns in this election, he added.

In August, The Catholic Association commissioned Magellan Strategies to conduct a poll of about 2,600 likely Catholic voters.

Seventy-two percent of respondents agreed that "America's exploding federal debt hurts the poor the most."

Sixty-six percent said "Catholics can disagree about the best way to serve the poor--for example, favoring private charity over government programs – without being 'bad' Catholics."

While flash polls indicated that viewers overwhelmingly believed that Romney won the debate, the political results of the event can be difficult to measure, due to the "huge flow of events and information" entering the political playing field in the month of October, Newport explained.

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Debates can make a difference, both individually and collectively, but "it's hard to pinpoint how much," he said.

While he believes that the Oct. 3 debate had the potential to influence voters, Newport said its relative gravity ultimately depends on a number of factors.

The remaining debates, changes in unemployment and paid advertising in swing states could all contribute to the final outcome of the election in ways that are not yet realized, the pollster stated.

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