John Baer: Can the Catholic vote predict the election's outcome?

In the campaign's final days, President Obama hugs daughter Sasha, with Malia on his left, as they leave St. John's Episcopal Church Sunday on the walk back to the White House.
In the campaign's final days, President Obama hugs daughter Sasha, with Malia on his left, as they leave St. John's Episcopal Church Sunday on the walk back to the White House. (PHOTOS: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: October 30, 2012

MY ONLY PRAYER for next week's election is that it ends with a winner.

I say this because of the threat of an unresolved result, an Electoral College tie.

That would set the stage for (pick one) arm-twisting, blackmailing or bribing electors to change their votes on or before meeting Dec. 17, or House/Senate action in January producing a Romney/Biden administration.

As you no doubt know, an Electoral College tie goes to Congress, where the new House, presumably Republican, picks the president, while the new Senate, presumably Democratic, picks the vice president.

Would that make anyone happy? I mean, other than comedy writers?

So, I hope and pray that next Tuesday, Romney or Obama wins outright; and what better place for hope and prayer than within the Catholic vote?

Perhaps there lies a read on a likely winner.

Catholics, after all, are bellwether voters. There are lots of them (an estimated 47 million voted in 2008). They represent almost one-fourth of all registered voters. And they vote in higher proportion than non-Catholics.

They're important to both parties: Obama carried Catholics in '08 (54-45), and Bush did in '04 (52-47) even though John Kerry's Catholic.

In the last 10 presidential elections, whoever won Catholics won nine times. The sole exception was Al Gore in 2000. He won Catholics and the popular vote (by 543,000) but lost the Electoral College.

I'm not suggesting that Catholics vote as a bloc. They don't.

"They did in 1960," when JFK became the first Catholic president, says Mark Gray, of Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate, "but not since then."

Just this year, two Catholics in the Republican primaries, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, lost to Mormon Mitt. Still, the vote remains highly monitored.

Gray notes that Catholics split over Church issues such as abortion and gay marriage, and social-justice issues, including funding for Medicaid and Medicare.

And, says Gray, "Catholics put partisanship before faith."

That seems to be playing out this year.

In nine surveys of Catholic voters, Romney leads slightly in seven; Obama leads slightly in two, but all are within the margin of error and reflect a national tie.

This despite the fact that Romney's views are closer to Church teachings on abortion, marriage and the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate - and despite the Church being outspoken about the election.

Bishop David Ricken, in Green Bay, Wis., for example, recently told members of his diocese that voting for candidates who support abortion or gay marriage can "put your own soul in jeopardy."

And Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput told the Catholic News Service in Rome that Catholic voters should put faith above party: "It's very important for Catholics to make distinctions when voting that they never support intrinsic evils like abortion, which is evil in all circumstances. That's a lot different from different economic policies."

I ask Greg Smith, author of Politics in the Parish: The Political Influence of Catholic Priests, how much influence the Church has on Catholic voters.

"Not very much," he says, "and it's nuanced."

Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, says that back in July it appeared that Romney would benefit when 56 percent of Catholics backed bishops' opposition to health care requiring religious institutions to include birth control in employer-provided insurance.

"It started out as an anti-Obama thing," says Smith, "but now that's mostly gone and it's all about the economy."

Melissa Deckman, a poli-sci professor at Washington College, in Maryland specializing in religion and politics, agrees.

"Despite high-profile issues touted by the bishops, it's the economy that Catholic voters care most about in this election," she says.

She adds that Catholics Joe Biden and Paul Ryan on the tickets don't matter since each represents half the common Catholic-vote conflict: pro-choice/pro-life; support/cut safety-net funds.

So it seems there's no solace in the search for signs of something other than a tick-tight race; the oft-determinative Catholic voter is, as Deckman puts it, "essentially like everyone else."

Heaven help us.


Contact John Baer at baerj@phillynews.com. For his recent columns, go to philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.

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