In tight presidential race, social issues could have an impact

Barack Obama And Mitt Romney Participate In Second Presidential Debate Credit Michael Reynolds Pool Getty Images News Getty Images CNA US Catholic News 10 17 12 Mitt Romney (R) speaks as President Barack Obama (L) listens during a town hall style debate at Hofstra University October 16, 2012. | Michael Reynolds-Pool / Getty Images News / Getty Images.

In an election year that continues to be dominated by economic concerns, one public policy analyst believes that social issues could still play an important role in November.

"The race became much more tightly competitive" after the first presidential debate, said Dr. Mark J. Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University.

He explained to CNA on Oct. 17 that a close race could mean that social issues such as abortion and the federal contraception mandate might end up being more influential in the presidential election than they otherwise would.

On Oct. 16, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney met at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. for the second of three presidential debates in the 2012 campaign.

The town hall format yielded heated exchanges between the candidates on topics ranging from gun control to the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in a Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

As in the first debate, the economy and jobs were key issues of discussion. Moral issues such as gay marriage and abortion were largely absent, with the candidates just briefly discussing the contraception mandate that has alarmed religious freedom advocates and drawn lawsuits from more than 100 plaintiffs of various religious backgrounds.

High levels of unemployment and a struggling economy have consistently played a large role in what has become a tight presidential race.

"On the whole, Catholics are concerned about jobs and the economy right now, just like other Americans," Rozell said.

However, he acknowledged, "for some Catholic voters, the social issues are paramount," even in an election dominated by economic issues.

These voters tend to be traditional and conservative, and the contraceptive mandate is a very important issue for many of them, he said. And while many of these voters would likely have voted conservative anyway, opposition to the mandate could be intensifying their efforts to raise support.

"In what is expected to be a very close election this year, that means that these social issues do matter," even if these matters are ranked as being less important than economic issues in national polls, Rozell explained.

In recent decades, the Catholic vote has come to be seen as a predictor in the general election, since the candidate who captures the Catholic electorate nearly always wins the race.

"There is no distinctively Catholic vote anymore," Rozell said. Rather, Catholics – who make up one-fourth of the electorate in a presidential race – tend to reflect the general voting population.

In this race, he observed, the presence of two Catholic vice presidential candidates "neutralizes religious identity as a factor," counteracting the tendency to vote on a candidate specifically based on religious affiliation.

It is religious participation rather than religious identity that is more closely associated with differences in voting behavior, Rozell explained. Those who attend church regularly are more likely to vote for conservative candidates, while those who attend church less frequently are more likely to vote for liberal candidates.
"I think it comes down to the traditional divisions" within the Catholic community, he stated.

In the final three weeks before the election, Rozell said that the most important remaining factors are "people's perceptions of the economy," as well as the candidates' performance in the third debate, which will be a last impression for many voters.

Although the final debate will focus on foreign policy, viewers should not be surprised to see both candidates tying domestic issues into their discussions, he said.

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The last presidential debate will be held Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

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