Catholic voters key to presidential win
By Salena Zito
Published: Saturday, June 2, 2012, 6:10 p.m.
Worry about eroding religious freedom could sway Roman Catholic voters further away from President Obama, and the Catholic voting bloc typically predicts the winner in presidential elections, experts say.
Yet, as conservatives continue to pound Obama in ads geared toward the faithful, some Catholics who care about the president's slip in polls plan to campaign for him on social media sites. Both sides, campaign strategists say, are trying to secure the important vote.
"Catholic voters are a critical and crucial part of winning the election," said Burns Strider, a Washington-based strategist the Democrats brought on to hold Catholic and evangelical voters after the 2004 election. Then, he said, "We were adrift ... in our mooring with a lot of our traditional constituencies."
The Obama campaign recently moved Michael Wear, an executive assistant in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, to Chicago to become the campaign's faith vote director. Wear, 23, a Buffalo, N.Y., native, describes himself as a Christian in his Twitter profile and often tweets about religion, politics and social issues.
"Religious liberty is becoming a major campaign issue as many Catholics, along with other Americans, are realizing that religious freedom and conscience protection can no longer be taken for granted," said Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor and a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.
Glendon, who grew up in a family of Massachusetts Democrats, is a registered independent and supports Republican nominee Mitt Romney. She said his "explicit promise" to reverse any regulation that restricts religious liberty is "reassuring."
Pete Flaherty, religious outreach director for Romney, said his campaign will try to reach Catholics individually, "diocese by diocese, parish by parish."
Romney, a Mormon, "stands shoulder to shoulder with the Catholic voter," said Flaherty, his longtime senior adviser. During GOP primaries, exit polls showed Romney won among Catholics in every state but Tennessee, and their vote decided close contests in Ohio and Michigan.
"Catholic voters will have a clear choice in this election, when it comes to protecting life, traditional marriage, and religious freedom and the recognition that economic growth lifts people out of poverty and provides them with the dignity of work," Flaherty said.
That message comes across in a YouTube video, "Test of Fire: Election 2012," that has attracted more than 1.5 million views since March. Though it doesn't name either presidential candidate, the video appears alongside others promoting conservative values and opposing Obama, such as one titled "Obama mocks and attacks Jesus Christ."
"Will you vote the values that will stand the test of fire? Some things are more important than high gas prices or a faltering economy. They are life, marriage and freedom. This November, Catholics must stand up and protect their sacred rights and duties," says the Test of Fire video produced by Creative Lab LLC in West Palm Beach, Fla.
A Gallup survey in early May found Catholic voters evenly split for Obama and Romney, though white Catholics who identified themselves as "mostly" or "moderately" religious favor Romney and the nonreligious support Obama.
In April, a Pew Research Center survey found Obama's approval among Catholics dropped 8 percentage points since March, down from 45 percent, as support for Romney rose 6 points to 57 percent.
"That drop among Catholics is very concerning," said Al Zangrilli, a member of Pittsburgh Catholics for Obama.
The group of 80 people, including two priests and 10 nuns, held its inaugural meeting in March and last week debuted a website, www.pittsburghcatholicsforobama.org, to provide information for Catholic voters who might be hesitant to choose Obama again.
Zangrilli thinks Catholic voters could tip the election in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. With the website, he said, "Our aim is to provide a place for Catholics to know that, even if all of the president's positions don't line up with the Catholic (doctrine), they can still vote for him."
The site claims Obama's views and policies affirm the major principles of Catholic social teaching, such as helping the poor and promoting peace. It describes Obama as "a person of integrity and moral convictions (who) recognizes the complexity of moral issues which divide Americans."
"He affirms our responsibility to work together to bring about the common good," the website says.
In every modern presidential election, the Catholic voting bloc has been a harbinger of the popular vote, said Catherine Wilson, a Villanova University political scientist who specializes in religious voters.
"They are the ultimate swing vote. Where they go, so goes the election," she said.
Though many Catholics decried Obama's support of abortion and embryonic stem cell research in 2008, he won 54 percent among Catholic voters against Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Now, Obama's acceptance of gay marriage and a raging argument over religious freedom that began with his administration's health insurance rule involving birth control, could shift that support.
Catholic leaders in eight states and the District of Columbia are suing in federal court to exempt religious organizations from a provision in the 2010 Affordable Health Care Act that mandates employers offer insurance covering contraceptive costs.
Church leaders including Bishop David Zubik in Pittsburgh and his predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, argue the requirement violates religious freedom. The mandate includes a radical definition of what constitutes a religious community and ministry, Wuerl said on May 27 on "Fox News Sunday."
"The new definition says you are not really religious if you serve people other than your own and if you hire people other than your own," Wuerl said. "That wipes out all of the things that we have been doing, all the things that we contribute to the common good -- our schools, our health care services, our Catholic charity and even parish soup kitchens."
The Pew data found Obama's support among other demographic groups that are considered reliable Democratic voting blocs -- people ages 50 to 64 and those making $30,000 to $75,000 a year -- also slipped 8 percentage points from March to April. The Washington-based nonpartisan research center has no immediate plan to update its poll on Catholics.
The Pew survey, during uproar over the health care mandate, might indicate "some Catholics are exhibiting a mild case of voter backlash," Wilson said. But a more plausible reason for Obama's slipping popularity is voter angst about the economy, she said.
Still, social issues can weigh heavily with voters. Duquesne University law professor Nick Cafardi, a member of Pittsburgh Catholics for Obama, resigned from Franciscan University in Steubenville in 2008 following his vocal support of Obama.
"In 2008, it appeared that if you were Catholic and casting a vote for Obama it would be a mortal sin," said Joyce Rothermel of Wilkins, former CEO of Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and another member of Pittsburgh Catholics for Obama.
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