Why is Santorum losing the Catholic vote?

March 9, 2012

It’s easy to stereotype the American electorate, to make assumptions about which politicians should appeal to which voters. Oftentimes those assumptions are correct, but the Republican primaries have produced an intriguing case of when they’re not: Rick Santorum is losing the Catholic vote.

Santorum, a devout Roman Catholic, has lost that segment of the vote to Mitt Romney, a Mormon, in every state but one (Tennessee) where there are exit polls. Notably, that includes two big industrial states, Michigan and Ohio, where the two competed head-to-head. In Michigan, Romney won among Catholics 44 percent to 37 percent. In Ohio, his margin was even larger at 44-31 percent.

Catholics made up about one-third of the electorate in both states. Romney’s advantage over Santorum among Catholics in Ohio was enough to tip the state to him in the primary, given his one-point margin overall.

In presidential elections, Roman Catholics remain an important swing vote — and common religious affiliation is no longer a guarantee of success. John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, was elected with an overwhelming majority of the Catholic vote in 1960. But the next Catholic nominee for president, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), narrowly lost the Catholic vote to George W. Bush in 2004.

This year the Republican race has featured two Catholic candidates, Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who converted several years ago. In the Republican primaries, many analysts may have made the incorrect assumption that Catholics would be conservative on social issues and therefore more likely to vote for Santorum than Romney when the two were pitted head to head.

That’s not quite the case. What accounts for this? Based on a deeper analysis of the exit polls, there are several factors that highlight the complexity of the Catholic population and explain where Romney’s support is coming from.

There are several reasons why Santorum would be expected to win the Catholic vote over Romney. One, obviously, is religious affiliation. The other is that his views on abortion and other social issues would resonate strongly with Catholic voters in a Republican primary.

What the exit polls show, however, is that, in Michigan, Catholics as a group were less opposed to abortion than were voters who described themselves as evangelicals. In that state, 77 percent of evangelicals said abortion should be illegal, but among Catholics it was 60 percent. Unfortunately, there is no comparable data from Ohio.

The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania has often noted with some irony that he was once included in a Time magazine list of the most influential evangelicals in the nation. His strong pro-life message, his emphasis on family structure and on cultural value — all deeply held convictions — have resonated with those voters more than with Catholics. He won a majority of evangelicals in Michigan and almost half of them in Ohio. (There is a small overlap between Catholic and evangelical voters; nationally, about 15 percent of Catholics describe themselves as evangelicals in survey responses.)

Majorities of Catholics in both states said it is important to share a candidate’s religious beliefs. But that wasn’t enough to give Santorum a huge boost. He beat Romney among Catholics who expressed this view by 7 percentage points in Michigan. Among those who said sharing a candidate’s religious beliefs was not all that important, Romney won by nearly four times that margin — 26 points.

The great divide among Catholics is one that has been common among the overall GOP electorate this year, which is income. Romney consistently does better among the wealthiest voters, while Santorum fares better among those with lower incomes. That was the case among Catholics in Ohio and Michigan.

In Ohio, Romney beat Santorum by 15 points (52-37 percent) among voters with incomes of more than $100,000. Among those with incomes below $100,000, he led by only 3 points (37-34 percent). The margins in Michigan were not as dramatic but still held. He beat Santorum by 7 points among the wealthiest Catholics and just 3 points among those below that income threshold.

The exit polls offer no clear pattern on differences based on age, gender or education levels. What’s true in Michigan in those cases isn’t necessarily true in Ohio.

Overall, Romney may be winning Catholic voters in these industrial states for the same reason he has won in other states: economic issues. Throughout the year, almost without exception, Romney has won among voters who say the economy is their top concern. He also has won among those who say that electability was the driving factor in their voting decisions.

Because of the way the exit polls were constructed in Ohio and Michigan, there was no way to answer that economy question definitively for those states. But the overall results and the underlying patterns are enough to remind everyone not to take any electorate too much for granted.

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