Yesterday, the Romney campaign told reporters that it expected to win at least some of the “blue states” in which it is now competing with Obama in the Midwest, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The campaign did not give a specific reason for its optimism, but one thing these states have in common is a high proportion of Catholic voters. And Catholic voters have shifted dramatically towards Mitt Romney.
In September, the left and the media were exultant when the Pew poll seemed to show a surge for Obama among Catholic voters. He led by fifteen points, 54-39.
Today, that bubble has burst completely, and Obama is back down to a two-point lead, 48-46. (Few headlines this time from the mainstream media.)
Among white Catholics, Romney has jumped to a 14-point lead (54-40) after being tied with Obama in September in the poll.
To understand just how significant that is, consider that in 2008, Obama won Catholics by 9 percent (54 to 45) and lost white Catholics by just 5 percent (47 to 52). In 2004, the Catholic vote went narrowly to Bush overall (more widely among white Catholics), and in 2000 it went narrowly to Gore (and narrowly to Bush among white Catholics).
The 14-point lead Romney currently enjoys among white Catholics is almost without precedent.
Catholic voters are abandoning Obama for the same reason many other voters are: the sluggish economy, Romney’s strong performance in the presidential debates, Obama’s dishonesty and failure in Benghazi.
Yet Catholic voters have reason to feel particularly aggrieved, given the Obama administration’s battle with the Catholic church over the mandate in Obamacare that employers cover abortion drugs and contraceptives.
Those grievances came to the fore particularly sharply in mid-October, after the Vice Presidential debate between incumbent Democrat Joe Biden and Republican challenger Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) (both Catholics). Ryan brought up the conflict between the administration and the church over Obamacare: “They’re infringing upon our first freedom, the freedom of religion, by infringing on Catholic charities, Catholic churches, Catholic hospitals.”
Biden’s response was total denial:
With regard to the assault on the Catholic Church, let me make it absolutely clear. No religious institution, Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic Social Services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy–any hospital–none has to either refer contraception. None has to pay for contraception. None has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact. That is a fact.
Ryan responded simply: “If they agree with you, then why would they keep–why would they keep suing you?”
The church responded at greater length, with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops publicly disputing Biden’s “fact”:
This is not a fact. The HHS mandate contains a narrow, four-part exemption for certain “religious employers.” That exemption was made final in February and does not extend to “Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital,” or any other religious charity that offers its services to all, regardless of the faith of those served.
That extraordinary rebuke drove home the degree to which the Obama administration has adopted a confrontational path with institutional Catholicism. And it seems to have amplified the benefit of the debates, for Romney and Ryan, among Catholic voters.
Obama’s collapse among Catholic voters, and especially white Catholics, also suggests that the 2012 election is about much more than the economy, even if the economy is the most important issue. For many voters, the choice is also an ideological one, between a president who has attempted to increase the power of the government at the expense of religious liberty, and one who has committed to traditional values and small government.
Two of the states in which Romney is suddenly competitive have unemployment rates that are below the national average. Likewise in Ohio, which also has many Catholic voters, and where the candidates remain neck-and-neck.
The debates did much to establish Romney and Ryan as legitimate alternatives, but also reminded the Catholic community it has no reason to trust the Obama/Biden ticket with another four years. And the numbers show it.