The American Values Survey, released today by the Public Religion Research Institute, finds that — as CEO Robert Jones puts it — there is no Catholic vote. And if there were a Catholic vote, four weeks ago (when the survey data were collected) it would have voted 52 percent to 48 percent for Obama. That was during the high-water mark of the Obama campaign when Gallup found him hitting 50 percent.
But while the overall figures on Catholic voting preferences are not informative, it is interesting to see how wide the presidential-preference divide is between Catholics who attend Mass regularly and those who do not. Evidently Catholics are substantially more polarized this cycle, with Romney winning 61 percent of religiously active Catholics (besting Bush’s 56 percent in 2004) and 37 percent of inactive Catholics (worse than McCain’s 41 percent in 2008). Romney’s 48 percent Catholic vote overall is about at the median between McCain’s 45 percent and Bush’s 52 percent.
As the race has tightened since the “American Values Survey” was conducted, it is unlikely that Romney will underperform McCain among secular Catholics, but he is approaching a historic return among faithful Catholics. Why might that be? The very real threat to religious freedom posed by the Obama administration — I have in mind not just the HHS mandate, but also the Hosanna-Tabor Supreme Court case and other examples of administration hostility — cannot be dismissed. Half of Catholics who attend Mass heard a letter from their bishop read in Church describing the threat of the HHS mandate to the Church’s social-service activities. While this survey reports that a 56–40 percent majority thinks religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should be required to cover contraception at no cost, this wording can be dismissed out-of-hand as inadequately characterizing the HHS mandate which requires far more than contraceptives, yielding a result contradicted by most other national surveys.
The survey report takes a stab at articulating a new typology of “social justice” Catholics versus “right-to-life” Catholics, but this effort fails. Such typologies should not be based on a single survey question, and choosing between the defense of life and helping the poor is a false choice. Instead, the survey ought to have offered respondents a “social renewal” alternative to the “social justice” agenda, allowing respondents to express their concern for the nation’s moral ecology. Actually, there was one such question left on the cutting room floor: 72 percent (of all respondents) agreed that the main cause of America’s problems is moral decay.
— Steven Wagner is the president of QEV Analytics, a public-opinion research firm in Washington D.C.