President Bush is rapidly tying up the Catholic vote, according to two polls that show him gaining support among this traditionally Democratic group.
The first poll, released last Monday by the Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm, showed Mr. Bush, a Methodist, edging out his Catholic Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, 53 percent to 39 percent.
Pollster George Barna termed the switch “seismic,” considering that a similar survey taken by his firm in May showed the president trailing the Massachusetts senator by 43 percent to 48 percent.
“Many of the Catholics now behind Mr. Bush have traditionally voted Democratic, but have chosen a different course this time around,” he said.
His poll represents a 19-point shift in preference in just four months among Roman Catholics, who make up 23 percent of the nation’s electorate. Conducted Sept. 11 to 24 among 898 registered voters, it had a margin of error of 3 percent.
A second poll, released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, was not as dramatic, but it does show the president building an edge of 49 percent to 39 percent against Mr. Kerry among white Catholics. This poll, conducted Sept. 22 to 26 among 948 registered voters, had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.
Analysts say once-undecided Catholics are leaning toward the president on character issues. Raymond Flynn, former Democratic mayor of Boston and ambassador to the Vatican during the Clinton administration, said that during a recent trip to Ohio, he noticed a tilt toward Bush among Catholics there.
“They’ve been moving and closer to George Bush all the time,” he said. “I think people don’t make decisions on political or social issues; they make decisions on the character of the person. That’s where George Bush’s strength is: his character and its qualities. He’s a good man, and people like him.”
Mr. Flynn, who said he gets invited into Democratic strongholds, “because I’m Irish Catholic,” concedes that issues such as homosexual “marriage” have hurt the Democratic Party.
“After I talk about Catholic values, there’s no other conclusion for people other than to vote for George Bush,” he said. “I think a lot of Catholics in the last month have concluded that with George Bush, even though we disagree with him on some issues, he is best for this country.”
Three months ago, Catholics were evenly divided on the two candidates, according to a Catholics for Free Choice poll conducted June 2 to 11 among 2,239 Catholics, which found Catholic voters tied at 40 percent for Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry, with 2 percent favoring independent Ralph Nader and 18 percent undecided. This poll had a 2.1 percent margin of error.
John Green, who teaches political science at the University of Akron and directs the Bliss Institute, said the consistent anti-Kerry message preached by conservative Catholics, who disagree with the senator on his abortion stance, might have scored some hits.
“Everyone in this country is taking cues from what the Catholics say about Kerry,” he said. “In the early 1990s, Republican strategists were saying it would be great to get conservative Catholics on board. Well, now finally they are.”
Such groups might be almost too effective, judging from a petition by Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) asking the Internal Revenue Service to revoke the tax-exempt status of two such groups, Catholic Answers Inc. and the Culture of Life Foundation, for endorsing or opposing a particular political candidate.
At issue is an ad that Catholic Answers ran in regional editions of USA Today containing text from a 10-page “Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics” that informs Catholic voters they should not vote for candidates who support abortion, euthanasia, fetal stem-cell research, human cloning and homosexual “marriage.”
CFFC filed that complaint on Sept. 20.
On Tuesday, they filed a similar complaint against the Culture of Life Foundation, saying the District-based group “has consistently engaged in partisan attacks against presidential candidate John Kerry, going so far as to call him a ‘bad Catholic’ and publishing materials on its Web site suggesting that Catholics may not vote for ‘pro-abortion politicians.’”
Catholic Answers President Karl Keating said his organization does not violate tax rules, and Culture of Life President Austin Ruse shrugged off the threat.