Monday, September 13, 2004

Catholic Voters Shifting to Bush on Abortion

Analyst cites abortion stance as some Catholic voters shift to Bush
By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Not only are the candidates for president focusing their attention on a handful of "battleground" states, President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry are targeting specific groups there for attention, particularly Catholics.

The strategy may be working for Bush better than it is for Kerry, with Catholics polled by Zogby International in some of those states pulling away from the general public and saying they are more likely to vote for Bush.

Although in past decades Catholics were seen as a significant voting bloc, the conventional political wisdom has it that Catholics tend to vote about the same as people in similar demographic groups or economic circumstances.

So why did 60 percent of a sampling of Catholics in Minnesota say they were likely to vote for Bush, compared to 44 percent of the overall state voters who said they would re-elect the president? By comparison, 51 percent of all Minnesota voters polled said they plan to vote for Kerry, while 36 percent of Catholics said they would do so.

Those results of the phone survey of 725 Minnesota voters conducted between Aug. 28 and Sept. 3, and released Sept. 7, continued a trend that has evolved over the summer among Catholics in the state. About 25 percent of Minnesota residents are Catholic.

Zogby senior political writer Fritz Wenzel told Catholic News Service that the answer may lie in the attention brought to Kerry's abortion positions this summer. In places with strong pro-life networks such as Minnesota, that may be affecting how some Catholics vote, he thinks.

"In this political atmosphere, there are two key issues for Catholics," Wenzel said. "Concern about the legitimacy of the war in Iraq is being overridden by ongoing discomfort with Kerry's stand on abortion."

Kerry, a Catholic, has a record of voting against bills that would limit abortion and in favor of legislation to keep it less restricted. Bush supports abortion-limiting legislation and signed a ban on partial-birth abortions. Catholic teaching opposes abortion in all circumstances.

Wenzel said Zogby's bimonthly poll showed Catholic voters in some states began to split toward Bush in midsummer. That was soon after widespread news reports of statements by U.S. bishops over whether Catholic politicians whose actions in office contradict some church teachings should be permitted to receive Communion.

A separate August poll by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 72 percent of Catholics nationwide think it is inappropriate for bishops to deny Communion to politicians whose public actions on abortion and other life issues go against church teachings.

But Wenzel said, although Catholics may disagree with bishops who want to impose such a sanction on politicians, news on the topic brought to the forefront Kerry's position on life issues. And that is turning some Catholic voters into Bush supporters, he said.

"These comments (by bishops) have gotten huge play," he said.

"Denying Communion is a whole different issue than abortion, but it made people aware of (the candidates') positions," Wenzel said. "It's like a potato chip that's the conveyor for the salt."

Wenzel said he sees stronger support for Bush in states such as Minnesota where Catholics tend to be fairly conservative on moral issues. And the Republican president's campaign has done an effective job of playing to those interests, he said.

On the other hand, when Kerry tried to explain how he sees his beliefs as a Catholic as separate from his obligations as an elected representative, "he tried to nuance his explanation and I don't think people followed it," Wenzel said.

Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania are also Catholic-heavy battleground states where Catholic voters are polling significantly more in favor of Bush than is the general population, according to the Zogby data. Here are the Sept. 7 report's figures:

-- Iowa: Overall -- Bush voters, 47 percent; Kerry voters, 51 percent. Catholics -- Bush voters, 56 percent; Kerry voters, 43 percent. About 18 percent of Iowans are Catholic.

-- Wisconsin: Overall -- Bush voters, 48 percent; Kerry voters, 50 percent. Catholics -- Bush voters, 56 percent; Kerry voters, 42 percent. About 31 percent of Wisconsin residents are Catholic.

-- New Hampshire: Overall -- Bush voters, 45 percent; Kerry voters, 50 percent. Catholics -- Bush voters, 53 percent; Kerry voters, 36 percent. Twenty-seven percent of the state's residents are Catholic.

-- Pennsylvania: Overall -- Bush voters, 47 percent; Kerry voters, 50 percent. Catholics -- Bush voters, 54 percent; Kerry voters, 44 percent. Pennsylvania's population is about 30 percent Catholic.

In most of the other swing states where Zogby polls regularly, Catholic voters support Bush and Kerry by about the same percentages as the rest of those queried.

Nevada and New Mexico are the notable exceptions among the battleground states. In both states Catholics are significantly more likely than their counterparts to say they'll vote for Kerry.

-- Nevada: Overall -- Bush voters, 47 percent; Kerry voters, 47 percent. Catholics -- Bush voters, 41 percent; Kerry voters, 56 percent. About 26 percent of the population is Catholic.

-- New Mexico: Overall -- Bush voters, 44 percent; Kerry voters, 54 percent. Catholics -- Bush voters, 30 percent; Kerry voters, 69 percent. New Mexico's population also is about 24 percent Catholic.

Wenzel said the candidates' positions on abortion are unlikely to be as strong a factor for Catholics in the West, partly because in most of the hotly contested Western states Catholics represent a smaller percentage of the population and targeting campaign messages to them is tougher.

But in states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, whose population is 23 percent Catholic, winning over a majority of Catholics could make enough of a difference to put the state in either candidate's "win" column, Wenzel said.

Zogby's statistical margin of error in its state-by-state battleground polling ranges from a high of plus or minus 4.3 percent in West Virginia, where it queried 532 voters, to a low of plus or minus 2.4 percent in Ohio, where it queried 1,714 voters. Margins of error would be higher for breakout samples, such as Catholics.