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Secular and Security-Minded: The Catholic Vote in Summer 2008

A National Opinion Survey of Likely Catholic Voters

In the run-up to the 2008 US presidential elections, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops sought to ensure that its perspective on abortion was at the center of the political debate. Several bishops responded to comments by vice presidential nominee Senator Joseph Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi—both prochoice Catholic Democrats—when they explained their beliefs about abortion to the media.

In addition, on the eve of the final congressional session of 2008 and eight weeks before the election, the bishops’ lobbying arm, the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, launched a series of print ads outlining the bishops’ opposition to embryonic stem-cell research and abortion. In a surprisingly defensive move, the committee also released a fact sheet, “Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching,” purporting to show that Catholic teaching on abortion “has not changed and remains unchangeable.” However, in doing so, it showed the exact opposite, outlining the different nuances that the hierarchy had on abortion through the ages.

As this poll shows, while the bishops continue in their attempts to make reproductive rights the primary national issue on which Catholics should base their vote, Catholic voters themselves place much greater priority on the basic bread-and-butter issues that most affect our country—the economy, war and health care.

Catholic voters, who make up 25% of the American electorate, show little interest in so-called values issues to help them decide who should be the next president, according to a survey of 1,033 Catholic voters conducted July 8 to 15, 2008. Instead, they want the next president to focus on the basics of improving the economy, ending the war in Iraq, and keeping the country safe from terrorism.

For the last nine presidential elections, the Catholic vote has been a classic swing vote in American presidential politics, changing from support for the Democratic candidate to the Republican and back again. In every presidential election since 1972, the candidate who won the Catholic vote has won the popular vote nationwide, making the Catholic vote a reliable indicator of where American voters will land on Election Day.

This national survey is the third pre-presidential survey of Catholic voters that Belden Russonello & Stewart has conducted for Catholics for Choice (CFC). The results of the BRS/CFC Catholic voter surveys in October 2000 and June 2004 tracked closely with the way Catholics voted for president in November of those years.

The 2008 survey explores a diversity of issues, including Catholic voters’ presidential preference, attitudes toward economic and national security issues, the war in Iraq, immigration, and social issues including abortion, pharmacist refusals to fill prescriptions for birth control, gay marriage, and abstinence-only education. The survey also investigates Catholic voters’ opinions of the Catholic hierarchy’s involvement in political issues. Some questions track attitudes from the 2004 survey.

The margin of sampling error for a random sample of this size is ±3.1 percentage points, and ±5.7 percentage points for the Latino oversample. The demographic characteristics of the sample have been weighted statistically to bring age, race and region into their proper proportions for likely Catholic voters based on 2004 exit poll data.

Tight Race for President

At the time of the survey, 42%of Catholics would vote for Democrat Barack Obama and 40% would vote for Republican John McCain, with one in six (17%) undecided. McCain holds a slim lead among white Catholic voters (44% to 37%), while Obama is winning the Latino Catholic vote by a huge margin (61% to 23%). Latinos make up one in six Catholic voters.

The youngest voters, ages 18 to 34, prefer Obama over McCain 47% to 41%. When younger voters are combined with voters slightly older, the vote splits by gender: Catholic women under 45 years old go with Obama (48% to 37%) while men under 45 tend toward McCain (46% to 41%).

National and Economic Security over So-Called Values Issues

The top priorities for the next president, according to Catholics, should be first and foremost improving the economy (68% saying it should be one of the highest priorities), followed by protecting the US from terrorism (54%), resolving the war in Iraq (50%), making health care more affordable (48%), and protecting Social Security (47%). While still a top concern, terrorism worries Catholics considerably less now than it did in June 2004 before the last presidential election (11 percentage point drop from 65% to 54%).

The next tier of priorities also reflects practical domestic needs, including improving public education (34%) and cutting taxes (34%).

Less important priorities for Catholic voters are advancing civil liberties (26%), promoting moral values in the country (25%), deporting illegal immigrants (23%), addressing global warming (22%), protecting a woman’s right to choose abortion (18%), promoting human rights (17%) and advancing gay rights (6%).

Differences According to Candidate Preference

The priorities of Catholic voters differ somewhat according to whom they support for president. Obama supporters’ top priorities are improving the economy, resolving the war in Iraq and making health care more affordable, in that order. McCain supporters’ priorities are protecting the US from terrorism, improving the economy and cutting taxes.

The Importance of the Peace and Prosperity

The Iraq war could be a decisive issue in dividing the Catholic vote, as 50% say that resolving the war is a top priority, and the two presidential candidates have different ideas on how to get this done. Currently Catholics lean more toward Obama’s view than McCain’s. When offered a choice between two positions, a majority (58%) supports a two-year timetable for bringing American troops home from Iraq, while four in ten Catholics (42%) believe the US should keep combat troops in Iraq as long as it takes to make the country stable.

Among the 30% of Catholic voters who say their presidential vote will be determined solely on a candidate’s position on Iraq, far more (66%) believe that the US should withdraw its troops within two years, than believe that the US should stay in Iraq as long as needed to make the country stable (33%).

Voters not Following the Hierarchy's Political Views

Catholics may be listening carefully to the candidates but few are following the dictates of the Catholic bishops when it comes to politics. Seven in ten (70%) say that the views of Catholic bishops in the US are unimportant to them in deciding for whom to vote and a similarly large proportion (73%) says they believe Catholic politicians are under no religious obligation to vote on issues the way the bishops recommend. While Catholic Republicans and Democrats and McCain and Obama voters disagree on national priorities, majorities of all of these voter segments agree that Catholics are not obligated to heed the bishops’ recommendations.

Specifically on the abortion issue, seven in ten (69%) say they feel no obligation to vote against candidates who support abortion, and an equal number disapproves of denying Communion to Catholics who support legal abortion (75%).

There is little difference in presidential preference by how often Catholics attend church. Regular church-goers— those who fill the pews at Mass every week or more—split  43% for McCain and 39% for Obama.

More telling than frequency of church attendance is the political ideology of the church-goer. Liberal church-going Catholics place improving public education (70% saying highest priority), resolving the Iraq war (68%) and improving the economy (64%) at the top of their wish list for the president. Moderates who are regular church attendees add making health care more affordable (61%) on to their top two issues of the economy (79%) and the war (65%). Conservatives who are regular church-goers hold somewhat different priorities, leading with protection against terrorism (71%), followed by concerns over the economy (64%), protecting Social Security (52%) and the war (50%).

Mainstream Views

On a number of issues, Catholic voters mirror mainstream American public opinion.

- Catholic voters support keeping abortion legal (58% support), but are not ready to legalize gay marriage (58%    oppose).

- They believe insurance companies should be required to cover and pharmacists required to sell birth control pills. Three-quarters of Catholics support requiring health insurance plans to cover birth control pills (75%). Nearly  eight in ten (78%) oppose allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions.

- Catholic voters do not approve of schools teaching abstinence only in sex education classes. Six in ten (64%) oppose requiring high school sex education programs to only teach abstinence.

- Catholic voters lean against paying for children of illegal immigrants to go to public schools here in the US (53% oppose; 46% support), and against providing family planning funding to people overseas (55% oppose; 45% support).

- By a wide margin, they support decoupling science from religion and favor stem cell research with early human embryos (69% support), but they are divided on the idea of legal doctor-assisted suicide (50% support; 49% oppose).

- Catholic voters strongly support the death penalty for people convicted of murder (69% support), but oppose torture as official US policy (54% oppose).