Romney: Fumbling the Catholic Vote?

Post-convention opinion surveys are indicating that Mitt Romney is trailing in key battleground states particularly those with large Catholic populations – Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

A national pollster told me last week that Romney’s root problem is that he has not been able to close the deal with blue-collar Catholic voters. The 6 percent undecided in the national polls are predominantly white working-class Catholics who dislike Obama, but can’t bring themselves to cozy up to Romney. And without their support Romney can’t capture the 270 electoral votes required to win in November.

A recent Gallup poll shows Catholics in the aggregate splitting 47-46 in favor of the president. But that’s an aggregate figure that doesn’t tell us very much.

The Catholic Association’s National Catholic Election Survey conducted by Magellan Strategies from August 19-21 digs a little deeper. On a generic basis, 41 percent of Catholics support Romney, 49 percent Obama, and 10 percent are undecided.  Among regular Church attendants – those who go to Mass at least once a week – 47 percent intend to vote for Romney, 45 percent for Obama, and 8 percent are undecided.  Cafeteria Catholics break 53 percent for Obama, 36 percent Romney, and 11 percent undecided.

Here are the Election Survey’s findings on several key issues (each percentage indicates agreement with the statement):

Religious charities should not be forced
to pay for services they morally object to.
The Obama Administration has gone too far
in placing restrictions on religious freedoms
when implementing programs and policies.

Our rights come from nature and God,
not government. 
America’s exploding federal debt hurts the
poor the most.

Since Romney agrees with Catholics on these important issues, why aren’t they flocking to his camp?  A focus group conducted earlier this year by McLaughlin & Associates of Blue Collar Catholics in Cleveland and Pittsburgh gives some clues.

All the focus group participants voted for Obama in 2008 but were not strongly tied to him and are “up for grabs in November.”  The group was evenly split between practicing and cafeteria Catholics.  None of them had college degrees and their annual household incomes were under $60,000.

These working class Catholics believe real unemployment is significantly higher than Labor Department figures, and that federal spending and debt is out of control. They had mixed feelings about Obamacare in general, but specifically: opposed the federal mandate; were angry over the rising cost of gasoline; and supported energy production from coal and hydrofracking.

While most were not familiar with the Obamacare mandate on religious institutions, after learning the details their support for the HHS mandate weakened, particularly among regular churchgoers.

Finally, most of these voters disclosed that they “are personally and severely affected by the economic downturn and their primary concern is their own economic well-being.” Hence, they are very negative about their personal financial plight and “view the national economy as dismal.”  As they struggle to make ends meet, “they see the poor and unemployed as taking advantage of their hard work by collecting welfare.”

Even with these center-right views, blue-collar Catholics are not yet ripe for Romney’s picking.  That’s because they believe that rich people like Romney play by different rules.  The McLaughlin focus group respondents said that rich people like Romney “are getting richer at their expense.”

      The candidate campaigns in the Sunshine State

Romney has seven weeks to dispel the notion that he is an out of touch, Republican rich guy. This is not an impossible task. The groundwork was laid a generation ago by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. They forged the Republican realignment that included Catholic blue-collar ethnics. 

These two men were elected president because they were perceived as protectors of the interests of second- and third-generation ethnics while the Democratic “elitist heirs” of Adlai Stevenson and George McGovern scorned them.

        Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan opened his successful campaign over the Labor Day Weekend on Liberty Island in New York Harbor with the Statue of Liberty serving as a backdrop.  With his shirtsleeves rolled up, Reagan began his race for the White House by appealing directly to ethnic Catholic voters.  In his remarks that day, he lauded the true grit of millions of immigrants who had passed through Ellis Island.

This soft-spoken former Democrat invited Catholics to follow his lead into the Republican Party. Portraying himself as the antithesis of cultural liberalism, Reagan stressed the themes of “work, family, neighborhood, peace and freedom.” He told Catholic voters:

The secret is that when the Left took over the Democratic Party we took over the Republican Party.  We made the Republican Party into the Party of the working people, the family, the neighborhood, the defense of freedom, and yes, the American Flag and the Pledge of Allegiance to one Nation under God.  So, you see, the Party that so many of us grew up with still exists except that today it’s called the Republican Party. 
        Fast forward thirty-two years and these same working class Catholics, albeit smaller in number and older, are still the key to victory in the heartland states of Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Indiana. And for Romney to move them out of the undecided column he must do more than tell them he’s a nice guy who has a wonderful family. He must convince them that their working-class values and priorities are his and that he will protect their interests just as Reagan did.

If Romney does not move fast to execute a plan to reach out to these Catholic voters, he will blow the election on November 6 and go down as the Tom Dewey of our age.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.



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