The McCain-Palin ticket may be locking its huge lead on a crucial voting bloc: church-going Catholics.
The development — contained Thursday in a poll by the Pew Research Center and backed by other polls — could be crucial to victory in November.
Why? Catholics are the ultimate swing voters and make up as much as one-third the population of battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Moreover, some 40 percent of U.S. Catholics have no affiliation with either party.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain now has opened a 16-percentage-point lead over Democratic rival Barack Obama among observant Catholics, according to the Pew poll. The lead began to widen with the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate, who, unknown to most voters, was baptized in the Catholic Church but raised in primarily Protestant evangelical churches.
The gain was noted earlier this month in a Zogby Online Interactive poll that showed 54 percent of Catholic respondents endorsing McCain’s choice of Palin for his running mate. Thirty-one percent believed it would hurt the campaign. Seven percent believed it would not make a difference.
But there also was good news in the Pew poll for Obama: his is gaining among Hispanics, two-thirds of whom are Catholic. He’s also even with McCain among so-called “lapsed Catholics” who attend mass occasionally or never. Because of their dramatic growth in the electorate in the West over the last decade, a large Hispanic turnout could tip the election for Obama if he wins at least 40 percent of that bloc, according to experts.
For decades, Catholics have been leaving their traditional home in the Democratic Party, with more-observant Catholics in the vanguard. Northeastern Catholics were a huge factor in the victories of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. But over the last four years, pollsters and religious experts have detected a reconsideration of Democrats.
McCain may be winning them back.
“We have strong evidence that the Palin pick was the big part of it,” Scott Keeter, director of survey research at Pew, told The Christian Science Monitor. Palin’s large family and her decision to bear her fifth child despite a diagnosis of Down syndrome lit a spark with observant Catholics who are staunchly against abortion. Palin also reassured these voters on “a whole constellation of values issues that are important to conservative Christians,” Keeler said.
What’s now up for grabs is the vote of white, less-observant Catholics.
“To the extent that there would be a group within the Catholic population that is swingable, it would not be the frequent mass-attending [nor] those who never attend church,” says David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. “In the middle, however, is a fairly large group of Catholics who still think of themselves as Catholic and they still go to church periodically.”
If conservative Catholics have any reservations now, it’s based on McCain’s support of stem cell research — Palin is on record against it — and the question of Palin’s devotion to motherhood over her skyrocketing political career, according to some Catholic bloggers.
“The questions that fellow Catholics have raised have been… concerned with the Catholic understanding of the complementarity of the sexes and the vocation to motherhood. For instance, I've had a number of younger Catholic mothers raise the question of why the mother of a four-month-old child, especially one with special needs, wants to put her family through the grueling process of a presidential election campaign, much less the prospect of four years in the spotlight as vice president,” wrote blogger Scott P. Richert at the About.com Guide to Catholicism.
Richert stressed that most of his conversations were with Catholics who have long voted Republican.
“The other concern that both men and women that I've talked to have expressed is the sense that John McCain would not have picked Sarah Palin if she were a man,” Richert wrote. “The Church teaches that men and women have equal but complementary roles — that each sex is suited to different vocations and responsibilities. That doesn't necessarily mean that a woman couldn't be an outstanding vice president or president. But to choose a woman on the basis of her sex rather than her qualifications seems to undermine the Church's understanding of complementarity.”
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