Gallup & the Catholic Vote: One Source of Data, Two Conclusions

by Steven Wagner

There were two interesting presidential preference surveys conducted in April, one by the Pew Research Center and one by Gallup. Pew found President Obama leading Governor Romney by 49 percent to 45 percent (+4), yet losing among Catholics by the same margin, 45 percent to 50 percent (-5). Therefore, Catholics were 9 points more favorable toward the Republican candidate than voters as a whole. The Gallup survey found Obama and Romney tied at 46 percent to 45 percent among all voters, and among Catholics, 46-46. Gallup found no differentiation between Catholics and voters as a whole.

This fact allowed Frank Newport of Gallup to conclude in his analysis that Catholics were all over the map: You have your Hispanic Catholics, your white Catholics who attended Mass regularly, your religiously inactive Catholics — pay no attention to Catholics, they’re an incoherent voting bloc. Yet the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and Rachel Weiner looked at the same Gallup data and declared Catholics the “2012 Bellwether.”

The “pay no attention to Catholics” argument is a now common feature of election-year commentary. It seemed to have the desired effect on the McCain campaign, which had no systematic effort to appeal to Catholics. But to no apparent ill-effect: McCain lost to Obama by eight points overall (46-54) and won religiously active Catholics by one point (50-49); Bush won in 2004 by three points (51-48) and won religiously active Catholics by 13 points (56-43). The vote shift from Bush to McCain was eleven points overall, and twelve points among religiously active Catholics.

The Pew and Gallup surveys both have this annoying practice of presenting the presidential preferences for “white, non-Hispanic Catholic who attend Mass weekly” rather than for religiously active Catholics overall. No matter: Herein lies the bad news for Obama.

Pew shows Obama losing white, non-Hispanic religiously active Catholics by 34 points (67-34 among those with an opinion). Gallup is showing a nearly identical deficit of 32 points (66-34). In 2004, Bush only won this constituency by 21 points (60-39).

Might these results reflect the fact that 50 percent of religiously active Catholics heard a letter read at Mass expressing their bishop’s concern about the Obama administration’s affront to religious freedom? Some in the administration have convinced themselves that the HHS mandate won’t matter come Election Day, or that lost votes will be more than made up for by new votes. So far, the empirical data suggest otherwise. And clearly, the vote of Mass-attending Catholics will be one of the high dramas in this presidential election.

– Steven Wagner is president of  QEV Analytics and the Renewal Forum. He was director of the HHS human-trafficking program from 2003–2006. 

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