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Michael Gerson: Catholics won't go quietly this election year

By MICHAEL GERSON Published: May 23, 2012

In a blowout presidential election, a few large issues dominate. In a tight election, a range of smaller concerns — important to strategic constituencies in battleground states — can end up being crucial.

In this election, Americans are overwhelmingly focused on the economy, with cultural issues lagging in priority. But it does not follow that cultural debates are electorally unimportant. For President Obama, they could matter among the wrong groups in the wrong places.

Consider the Catholic vote. In the aggregate, the category is not particularly coherent. Hispanic Catholics are more Democratic in orientation than white Catholics. Very religious Catholics are more Republican than their less observant brethren. A shared faith does not always mean shared political behavior. The term “Protestant” applies to black voters and white evangelicals, to Episcopalians and Southern Baptists. Catholicism, while more institutionally united than Protestantism, has at least as much cultural, theological and political diversity.

But this does not mean a subset of Catholicism can't be electorally important. White, non-Hispanic Catholic voters could matter greatly in some tight state contests. And Obama has done his best to alienate them.

The main offense has been the Department of Health and Human Service's mandate for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs under Obamacare — a regulation that turns Catholic hospitals, universities and charities into instruments of a federal policy they find offensive. Between early March and mid-April, the Pew Research Center found that Obama's support among all Catholics fell from 53 percent to 45 percent. Among white Catholics, it dropped from 45 percent to 37 percent. These numbers have remained depressed. Obama won 54 percent of Catholic voters in 2008. A recent Gallup survey found Obama's Catholic support at 46 percent.

Correlation is not causation. But in this case, it doesn't seem mere coincidence. Professor John White, a political scientist at The Catholic University of America, finds Obama's decline among Catholics “in large part due to the recent debate over health care and contraception.” Many Catholics have issues with their own institutions. It does not mean they want those institutions targeted by government.

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