- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Catholics find themselves as the ultimate swing voters: more conservative than the nonreligious but more liberal than Protestants.

Although politicians of both parties hope Pope Francis’ teachings will give them a boost with Catholics, analysts say not to expect any major “Francis effect,” in part because the Catholic population is thoroughly mainstream and because the church’s teachings don’t graft easily onto either party’s platform.

“It would be naive to expect a pope to impact, on a very granular level, whether someone votes for a Democrat or a Republican. What I’m addressing more is how he can reframe some of our political conversations, like climate change, like inequality, and sort of remind us that these are moral priorities, not just partisan issues,” said John Gehring, Catholic program director at religious advocacy group Faith in Public Life.

Catholics are not single-issue voters, but tend to lean in the direction of the party that better represents issues important to them, such as climate change for Hispanics.

“We can anticipate a divided Catholic vote, with both Democrats and Republicans receiving votes from the Catholic community. The Democrats will probably receive the most Catholic votes because of Hispanics and other nonwhites. Republicans will probably win the white Catholic vote,” said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

“But exact margins will depend on turnout — Hispanic Catholics often vote at low rates — and which party does best with independent white Catholics,” he said.

Mark Gray, the director of Georgetown University’s CARA Catholic Polls, said that while Catholics rarely swing massively toward one particular party in presidential elections — though they did in 1960 and 1964 — they tend, as a whole, to vote for the winner.

“Protestants tend to go Republican. Non-Christians and those without a religion tend to vote Democrat. Catholics are the ever-important swing vote,” Mr. Gray said.

About one in five U.S. voters identifies as Catholic, and nearly half of U.S. adults have close connections to the church through relatives.

Catholics tend to mirror the general population when it comes to believing in man-made climate change, favoring the death penalty and supporting same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

Catholics are more concerned about climate change than the general population — 73 percent of Catholics believe the government should do more to address climate change, compared with 66 percent of the general public, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

But Catholics also are in step with general opinion on the death penalty, immigration and homosexuality — three major issues pushed by Francis and the bishops. About 53 percent of Catholics favor the death penalty, compared with 56 percent of the general public, according to the Pew Research Center on Religion & Public Life.

Sixty percent of all Catholics believe the government should find a way to allow illegal immigrants to become legal citizens. This perfectly lines up with the 60 percent of all Americans who have said they favor immigration reforms that help with a path to citizenship, according to PRRI.

Same-sex marriage is also lined up with the general public. Fifty-two percent of Catholics believe gay people should have the right to marry, compared with about 54 percent of the general public and 35 percent of Protestants, according to Pew.

Catholics believe abortion should be legal at lower rates than the general public — 52 percent of Catholics favor legal abortion, compared with 55 percent of the general population and 47 percent of Protestants, according to Pew.

But with a voting bloc so large, the differences within it are striking. Catholics who attend Mass regularly trend more conservative, as do white Catholics. The less observant, meanwhile, tend to be more liberal on economic and environmental issues — though Hispanics trend conservative on abortion and same-sex marriage.

One of the issues on which Hispanic and white Catholics vary greatly is climate change. While Catholics as a whole line up with the general public on the issue, 86 percent of Hispanic Catholics believe the government should do more to address climate change, compared with 64 percent of white Catholics, according to PRRI.

Predicting Catholics’ voting is difficult because the church’s teachings are split between the parties, Mr. Gray said, with Catholic doctrine opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, but opposed to the death penalty, supportive of labor unions and encouraging aid to the poor.

“It should be difficult for any Catholic to cast a vote in America. They should be metaphorically holding their nose as both parties (and their platforms) are inconsistent with Church teachings. So what Catholics typically do is emphasize the issues where their party is consistent,” Mr. Gray said.

The composition of Catholics in the U.S. is changing rapidly. Only 40 percent of Catholics younger than 30 are white, and in California, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona, Hispanic Catholics outnumber their white counterparts, according to a PRRI report.

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