By JIM ARKEDIS
In 2012, once again, Catholics should be the swing voters of a presidential race. They’re one of the country’s most divided and complex voting blocs, too. One third of Catholics are staunch social conservatives who view abortion as a litmus test when choosing a candidate, but Gallup polling finds the rest of Catholics slightly to the left of the country on most “values” issues.
Recent events have highlighted these divisions. After Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Catholic, said he was “entirely comfortable” with same-sex marriage in early May, President Obama reportedly accelerated his announcement endorsing it. Church leaders condemned Obama, while 68 percent of Catholics — five points higher than the country as a whole — support legal gay and lesbian relationships, and 51 percent support same-sex marriage.
In February, the Obama administration thought it had come to an understanding with the United States Council of Catholic Bishops over a federal mandate compelling Catholic institutions to pay for health care plans that cover birth control. But in the end the bishops rejected an “unjust and unlawful” deal, which Mitt Romney called an “attack on religious tolerance.” Fifty-eight percent of Catholics — including 62 percent of Catholic women — sided with the Obama administration, three points more than the rest of country.
Then there is the Hispanic vote. At 50 million, Hispanics are the fastest growing bloc in the country, solidly Catholic, and focused on the politics of immigration. In 2001, Karl Rove said that increasing the Republican share of the Hispanic vote was his mission, but the 2012 Republican Party doesn’t seem to be paying attention to that line of thinking. Mitt Romney promised to veto the Dream Act, a proposed law that would provide a pathway to legal status for children of illegal immigrants, provided they serve in the military or attend college.
Catholics are up for grabs this year. A Gallup poll from April has President Obama and Mitt Romney tied among Catholics, 46 percent each. At nearly 20 percent of the population, Catholics have roughly mirrored the popular vote in the last eight elections. They voted for Ronald Reagan and George Bush, but switched to Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. In 2000, Catholics, like the country, went under 50 percent for George W. Bush; but against John Kerry, Bush took 52 percent; by 2008, they’d flipped to Barack Obama, 54-45.
Recent events suggest that these vast groups of Catholic voters (again: women, moderates, Latinos) are now more open to a progressive faith-based message than they have been perhaps since Kennedy-Nixon.
The Obama campaign’s message should unequivocally stand with the church and Jesus Christ’s humble message of social justice, equality and inclusion. These are distinctly Catholic themes that draw sharp contrasts for Catholics who have tired of a Republican Party with less room for those who are not straight, male, white and self-sufficient.
Newly available data show the Obama campaign exactly where to target persuadable Catholics. On May 1, the United States Religious Census published a survey detailing where Catholics live on a county-by-county basis across the country. It was not terribly surprising. They heavily populate the Northeast, the upper Midwest, south Florida, southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, and California. In other words, there are a lot of Catholics in crucial swing states.
As a moderate Democrat and a Catholic, I disagree with my party when I say that I believe life begins at conception or that abortions should be performed only in cases of rape, incest or when a pregnancy threatens a mother’s life. In another era, those beliefs might have made me a Republican target. But I’m a Democrat, in part, because of the party’s deep belief in social justice: We’re the ones who make equality and inclusion central to our very being; we stick up for the little guy; we don’t believe everyone should fend for themselves all the time. That’s what Jesus said, and that’s the society President Obama wants to build.
Jim Arkedis is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.