Obama was slammed among white Catholics — and the HHS mandate may have made the difference.
My friend Mark Movsesian suggests that the bishops’ highlighting of religious freedom had no effect in the election. I’m not sure he’s right. The University of Akron’s John Green, a noted scholar of religion and politics, believes that the bishops’ highlighting of the HHS mandate helped push white Catholics’ seven-point swing against the Democratic ticket. From the Denver Post:
Green believes the religious liberty issue played a part in Obama’s significant drop in support among white Catholics (it fell from 47 percent in 2008 to 40 percent in 2012).
“I really do think it has a lot to do with that,” Green said. “There are two ways to look at it. One is, ‘Wow, that made a big impact, moved white Catholics away from the president.’ On the other hand, you could say there are limits to what bishops and lay Catholics could do because it only moved 7 points.”
It helped, in short, to broaden the Church’s message to people less motivated by its moral witness against abortion:
As for broader spectrum of Catholics, those unlikely to be swayed by the bishops’ focus on abortion may have been more open to the religious liberty argument, even if they disagree with (and ignore) the church’s ban on artificial contraception. Without digging deeper than the exit polls, it’s impossible to know.
Green suspects the religious liberty appeal connected more with white, regularly-attending-Mass Catholics, both because they trend more conservative and are actually in church to get the message.
This seven-point drop in white Catholic support even exceeded his loss among white Evangelicals (six points)—despite the fact that the latter are usually seen as more reliably conservative and politically organized. White Catholics have various levels of political and religious engagement whereas Evangelicals tend to attend church more regularly and vote conservative more reliably. Yet Obama’s greatest losses came from the Catholic side.
On the other hand, the bishops’ message seems to have had no effect among hispanic Catholics. According to post-election data from Pew, President Obama was able to increase his share of that group by three points—his greatest gain among any group, including black Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated. The difference may well be explained by income or rates of mass attendance, but then again maybe not. In any case, given that white Catholics were a much larger share of the 2012 electorate than hispanic Catholics (eighteen versus five percent), Obama’s major bleeding among the former group overwhelms his relatively minor gains among the latter.
Another group that seems to think the bishops’ efforts made a difference is the liberal group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which in the wake of the vote has asked the IRS to launch an investigation of the Catholic bishops. The emergence of efforts to silence the church’s public witness is one indication that it is having an effect.
Campaign operatives on both sides will be studying these numers closely, no doubt. What they’ll find is that it doesn’t behoove candidates to launch a war against religious freedom during election season. The bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom and related efforts may well have cost a somewhat weaker candidate the presidency.