The Catholic vote is the 2012 bellwether

Chris Cillizza and Rachel Weiner

Document Publication: The Washington Post Online

Publication Date: May 03, 2012

Ask ten people to name the most critical swing voting bloc in the 2012 presidential election and you’re likely to get at least five — and maybe ten — different answers.

But, new polling from Gallup suggests that it’s Catholics who could well be the best bellwether of whether President Obama or former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney will be elected president this November.

Among Catholic registered voters, Obama and Romney each took 46 percent in 19 days worth of Gallup tracking polls between April 11 and April 30. The numbers among Catholics were a virtual mirror image of the head to head matchup among all registered voters where Obama took 46 percent to Romney’s 45 percent over that same time period. (Because of the large sample sizes — Gallup polled almost 2,000 Catholic registered voters over those 19 days — the numbers are even more reliable.)

It’s not just this presidential election where the Catholic vote serves as a leading indicator of the national vote.

In the five presidential races prior to this one, the candidate who carried the Catholic vote won four of them. The lone exception was in 2000 when then Vice President Al Gore won the Catholic vote by two points (and the popular vote by .5 percent) but lost the presidency to then Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

In fact, in the last two presidential contests the Catholic vote has tracked almost exactly with the popular vote. In 2008, President Obama carried Catholics by nine points and beat Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) by seven points nationally. Four years earlier, Bush won the Catholic vote by five points and beat Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) by three points nationwide.

(It’s not just presidential elections where Catholics have been a key swing bloc. In the 2006 midterms when Democrats made huge congressional gains, the party won Catholics by 11 points. In 2010, when Republicans re-took the House, Catholics voted for GOP candidates by 10 points.)

In each of the past five presidential elections, Catholics have comprised somewhere between 26 percent and 29 percent of the overall electorate. (Catholics were 27 percent of the electorate in both 2004 and 2008.)

As Gallup’s Frank Newport notes in a memo on the findings, Catholics have historically been a Democratic-leaning constituency — the party can thank John F. Kennedy for that one — but in recent decades have become more of a toss-up voting bloc.

The eight presidential elections reveal how up for grabs Catholics truly. The Republican nominee has carried Catholics four times, the Democratic nominee has carried Catholics four times. With the exception of Bill Clinton, who beat Bob Dole among Catholics by 16 points, no candidate has had a winning margin among that group.

Keep an eye on the Catholic vote between now and November. How it goes will tell you a lot about who is going to be the next president.

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