Speaking as a political scientist, the new rule does seem like a bit of an odd choice in an election year. I’m not sure if many votes will be gained by the decision (people who would have otherwise not voted for President Obama in 2012 changing their mind to support him). Polls also indicate that new votes picked up will likely be outweighed by those potentially lost. Those speaking out against the decision have included well-known Catholics on the political left—unifying many Catholic leaders and pundits in a way that is not often seen. President Obama needs a majority of the Catholic vote in 2012. Nearly all presidential candidates have. This decision may have damaged those prospects. PRRI's polling indicates that “among Catholic voters … only 45% support this requirement, while 52% oppose it.” [Update: Opposition to the requirement among Catholic voters is now polling at 65%. Even more data from Pew here indicating a majority Catholic's who have heard of the rule oppose it. Outlier results on the topic are at CBS/NYT. Question wording is having an influence on responses.]
How did the administration come to this decision? I would not be surprised if polling data were used. In general, the Obama administration appears to rely heavily on testing language and policies in polls. The extensive use of survey research has been noted elsewhere in articles such as “Polling Helps Obama Frame Message in Health-Care Debate” or “Obama Using Polling Data.” Is President Obama’s use of polling all that different than his predecessors or his opponents? There are indications that it is. According to OpenSecrets.org, in the 2008 campaign, then candidate Obama spent $28 million on polling, surveys, and research (about 4% of total campaign expenditures). By comparison Republican candidate John McCain spent only $4.2 million polling, surveys, and research (about 1% of total campaign expenditures).
In the 2012 campaign, President Obama has already reported spending $4 million on polling, surveys, and research while being unopposed in his party’s primaries. The percentage of his expenditures dedicated to this research in the current cycle has increased to 6.4% of his total campaign outlays. By comparison the combined spending on polling, surveys, and research by the four candidates for the Republican nomination totaled $1.8 million during the same period. No candidate for president has ever dedicated so much of their campaign resources to polling as Barack Obama. For more perspective, note that the $4 million already spent by President Obama in the 2012 election cycle exceeds the total amount Democratic candidate John Kerry spent in his entire 2004 campaign.
I’m a survey researcher so I obviously know how valuable polling data can be. But these data can mislead at times. My hunch (and it is only that), is that some in the Obama administration looked at the polling data on Catholics and contraceptives prior to the announcement and thought the policy would be a home run. They might have reviewed this report from the Guttmacher Institute [Update: a good analysis of the 98% contraceptive use figure from the study is available at The Washington Post] or fielded their own surveys. They may have assumed that the personal decisions of many Catholics regarding contraceptives would provide the cover they needed to take on any opposition of the bishops. I think they envisioned that they could then just point to the polls (as they do now on the campaign website) and say to the bishops “you are out of touch.”
If made, I think this was likely a poor strategic decision on two counts. First, there are some Catholics (and this really only has to be a small percentage of the population to alter the 2012 election calculus) who are offended by any aspect of the government requiring the Church to do something that would violate its teachings—even when they personally do not follow these teachings. The decision touches the contentious constitutional boundaries between the American federal government and the practice of religion. Second, I think many American politicians, journalists, and commentators forget that there is no “American Catholic Church.” There is the Catholic Church in the United States—just one part of a global faith that is much larger outside of U.S. borders. In the grand scheme of things the polling numbers on attitudes and behaviors of Catholics in America (under 6% of the global Catholic population) cannot realistically be thought to have an impact on issues of doctrine. Would the global Church change or ignore one of its core teachings to “get in touch” with 50% plus one of the American population as it is polling currently? No. Not a chance. There is a much larger context to consider. The clashing policies and doctrines reside in different geographies. More so, purely from an American perspective, polls cannot trump the Constitution and in the end it will likely be the courts who will decide if the rule and accommodation do not violate protections for religious institutions (e.g., EWTN's case).