Catholic vote split along ethnic lines

PRINCETON, NJ — Catholic voters in the United States are evenly split in their support for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney for president, mirroring the national trend. However, Hispanic Catholics — about 18% of the total group of Catholic voters — are overwhelmingly likely to support Obama over Romney, while a majority of non-Hispanic white Catholics support Romney.

It’s confirmed, Religious white Catholics are breaking for presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, while Hispanic Catholics are favoring President Barack Obama, according to Gallup.

Obama holds a whopping 70 percent to 20 percent lead over Romney among Hispanic Catholics. But among white Catholics, Romney bests Obama 55-38, Gallup daily tracking polls found.

The white Catholics are divided along levels of religiosity, with devout and moderately religious going for Romney by large margins — 62-32 and 56-34 respectively. The nonreligious favor Obama 54-40.

At the end of the day, the differences may not amount to much in the general election race — if they hold, they may even cancel each other out. Catholics overall were split 46-46 between Obama and Romney.

If anything, as Gallup points out, the numbers underscore the fact that there is no such thing anymore as a typical Catholic voter.

“Catholics constitute almost one in four voters in the U.S. today, making their vote an important target of the Obama and the Romney election campaigns,” Gallup editor Frank Newport writes in his analysis. “However, although Catholics as a whole are almost precisely average in their vote choices at this point in the campaign, there are major differences by the ethnicity and religiosity of Catholics that underscore the difficulty of typifying and subsequently targeting an ‘average’ Catholic voter.”

Among Catholic registered voters, Obama and Romney each took 46 percent in 19 days worth of Gallup tracking polls between April 11 and April 30. The numbers among Catholics were a virtual mirror image of the head to head matchup among all registered voters where Obama took 46 percent to Romney’s 45 percent over that same time period. (Because of the large sample sizes — Gallup polled almost 2,000 Catholic registered voters over those 19 days — the numbers are even more reliable.)

It’s not just this presidential election where the Catholic vote serves as a leading indicator of the national vote.

In the five presidential races prior to this one, the candidate who carried the Catholic vote won four of them. The lone exception was in 2000 when then Vice President Al Gore won the Catholic vote by two points (and the popular vote by .5 percent) but lost the presidency to then Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

In fact, in the last two presidential contests the Catholic vote has tracked almost exactly with the popular vote. In 2008, President Obama carried Catholics by nine points and beat Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) by seven points nationally. Four years earlier, Bush won the Catholic vote by five points and beat Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) by three points nationwide.

(It’s not just presidential elections where Catholics have been a key swing bloc. In the 2006 midterms when Democrats made huge congressional gains, the party won Catholics by 11 points. In 2010, when Republicans re-took the House, Catholics voted for GOP candidates by 10 points.)

In each of the past five presidential elections, Catholics have comprised somewhere between 26 percent and 29 percent of the overall electorate. (Catholics were 27 percent of the electorate in both 2004 and 2008.)

As Gallup’s Frank Newport notes in a memo on the findings, Catholics have historically been a Democratic-leaning constituency — the party can thank John F. Kennedy for that one — but in recent decades have become more of a toss-up voting bloc.

The eight presidential elections reveal how up for grabs Catholics truly. The Republican nominee has carried Catholics four times, the Democratic nominee has carried Catholics four times. With the exception of Bill Clinton, who beat Bob Dole among Catholics by 16 points, no candidate has had a winning margin among that group.

Keep an eye on the Catholic vote between now and November. How it goes will tell you a lot about who is going to be the next president.

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