It's been too long since we've looked at any election data. With less than 100 days to go, now seems like a good time to see what is going on in the Catholic electorate. As a political scientist I can still say, in many ways, it is far too early. We don't know the impact of the selection of a running mate for the Republicans, both conventions are key, and the debates could provide turning points. Not to mention changes in the economy or foreign affairs could alter the election calculus (...does anything matter before Saturday Night Live begins to run their parodies?).
What it is not too early to say is that the race is largely over in 34 states and the District of Columbia. Polling data and voting trends over time lead us to believe these states are already "locked in." Outcomes here could only be altered by a very dramatic event. In 16 states, the race remains competitive and my analysis is on the "open-minded" side! For example, I'm leaving Georgia competitive because President Obama has 45% approval here and the Real Clear Politics polling average puts it in the "leaning Republican" column. Similarly, I still have Oregon as competitive because President Obama's approval there is 47 percent and this state is in the "leaning Democrat" column with the Real Clear Politics polling average. Many analysts would argue that fewer states are in play.
There are an estimated 17,225,000 self-identified Catholic adults living in what I consider to be competitive states (equivalent to 31% of the national Catholic voting age population or VAP). Some of these individuals are not in the voting eligible population (VEP) due to lack of citizenship but it is not possible to estimate the size of this population specifically for Catholics.
Geography matters as Catholics only make up 19% of the total VAP in competitive states (the total VAP in these states is 89.8 million). In recent elections, Catholics have made up about 25% of the total electorate. The full and final "weight" of the Catholic vote in the most competitive states will depend on turnout as well.
What does the potential Catholic electorate look like in competitive states? First, it is important to note that aggregating polls is always recommended, when possible. As the figure below shows, there is substantial variation and volatility in estimates of party identification (among the strongest predictors of presidential vote choice) in election polls. Note the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from last week had among the highest percentages of Democrats and lowest percentages of Republicans, whereas a recent Fox News poll had a more even distribution.
In the 20 most recent publicly available election polls I can review (via iPoll), on average, the U.S. electorate overall (Catholic and non-Catholic) is 34% Democrat and 27% Republican. Thus, President Obama has two key advantages in that he is an incumbent and he has a 7 percentage point partisan advantage in the electorate. Polls indicating advantages of more than a 12 percentage point difference in party ID in the overall electorate are likely straying into outlier territory.
The most recent survey I can analyze (...the actual data set, where I can isolate Catholics rather than just read national toplines or news releases) is from Gallup in June. The data reveal that Catholics are divided along partisan and ideological lines in both competitive and non-competitive states.
Differences in the figure above are within sub-group margins of sampling error (...which are larger than one would prefer due to smaller numbers of respondents in competitive states). This figure uses Gallup's combination of ideology and partisanship (including party "leaners"). I find this especially useful for analyses of Catholics as the Church's priorities are split between the U.S. parties and American political ideologies. The Church's stance on the death penalty, immigration, and fighting poverty are arguably more aligned with liberal thinkers and Democrats. The Church's stance on abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious liberty are arguably more consistent with conservative thinkers and Republicans. Thus, you may often see a conservative Democrat or a moderate Republican expressing opinions that are very consistent overall with the Bishops' Faithful Citizenship document. Collectively, conservative Democrats and moderate/liberal Republicans make up 28% of Catholics in competitive states (27% in non-competitive states).
Although margins of error are large, it does appear that conservative Republicans likely outnumber liberal Democrats among Catholics in competitive states. Some of the other characteristics of potential Catholic voters in competitive states are shown in the table below:
- An estimated 71% of Catholics of voting age in competitive states are currently registered to vote (68% are registered nationally). Protestants, inside and outside of competitive states, are the religious group with the highest registration numbers (80%).
- A majority of Catholics in competitive states (55%) say religion is an important part of their daily life. About one in four (24%) attends Mass every week (CARA adjusted percentage; consistent with our own polling nationally). In recent history, weekly Mass attenders lean Republican.
- One in five Catholics (21%) in competitive states has served in the military at some point in their life. In past elections, members of the military and veterans have tended to lean Republican.
- Eleven percent of Catholic adults in competitive states are either unemployed and looking for work or working part-time with a preference for full-time work. These Catholics may lean Republican, dissatisfied with sustained high unemployment rates that have been unprecedented in the post-World War II era.
- Five percent of Catholics in competitive states are members of a labor union. In past elections, union members have tended to lean Democratic.
- Updated (results not shown in table above): Twelve percent of adult Catholics in competitive states self-identify as Hispanic/Latino(a). By comparison, 34% of adult Catholics in non-competitive states self-identify as Hispanic/Latino(a). Catholics who self-identify as Hispanic/Latino(a) lean Democratic (...more research on this, including a CARA contribution, is available here).
- Fourteen percent of Catholics in competitive states work for the local, state, or federal government. Many of these Catholic public sector workers indicate working for the federal government.
- Half of Catholics (49%) in competitive states say the economic conditions in their local area are “only fair” or “poor.” Six in ten (60%) are this negative about the economy in their state. Nearly three in four (73%) say that economic conditions nationally are “only fair” or “poor.”
Catholics make up the largest share of the voting age population in the following four competitive states: New Mexico (32%), New Hampshire (30%), Pennsylvania (30%), and Wisconsin (29%). Most analysts have these states "leaning" Democrat. Most consider the hottest battlegrounds to be Ohio, Virginia, and Florida. I'd add Nevada to that mix as well in my own Electoral College scenarios (...perhaps New Hampshire also). Catholics could be an important "swing vote" in Nevada, Florida, and Ohio but make up a much smaller share of the potential electorate in Virginia.
Most recent polls are showing Catholics split between the candidates in vote choice. Again I don't make much of these yet with so many important milestones ahead. But it is clear that there is unlikely to be a "Catholic Vote" in 2012 and instead we will be focusing on how the vote of Catholics may or may not be important (...the votes of those without a religious affiliation may be more decisive to the election outcome).
Pew released a glimpse of Catholics possibly coming together on an issue important to the Church this week. But don't look for it in your newspaper. Almost every religion reporter I know of ignored it. However, if a tree falls and a reporter doesn't write about it you could still trip over the stump. Republicans may be happy to hear that...
- "By a 56% to 36% margin, Catholics who are aware of the bishops’ protests about what they believe are infringements of religious liberty say they agree with the bishops’ concerns."
- "The percentage of Catholics saying they are satisfied with the leadership of American bishops has increased sharply since 2002."
Yet, in that same poll Pew also reveals something that will likely please Democrats...
- "[W]while most Catholics who are aware of the bishops’ protests agree with their concerns, about half of Catholic voters (51%) say Barack Obama best reflects their views on social issues such as abortion and gay rights; 34% say Mitt Romney best reflects their views on these issues."
- "Currently, 51% of Catholic registered voters support Obama or lean toward him, while 42% support Romney or lean toward him."
Stay tuned. As election season kicks into high gear we'll certainly have more analysis on the vote of Catholics in 2012...