Poll: Obama holds 8-point lead over Romney among Catholic voters

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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A new poll by a Catholic advocacy group shows President Barack Obama has a slight lead over Gov. Mitt Romney among non-Hispanic Catholics, despite the stalled economy and his 2012 establishment of church regulations requiring them to fund contraception and abortion-related services that they abhor.

The poll of 2,629 likely Catholic voters, an unusually large sample, showed that 46.5 percent of non-Hispanic Catholics support Obama, while 45.6 percent support Romney.

The poll was commissioned by The Catholic Association, and it showed Obama getting 49 percent of Catholics overall, including those of Hispanic descent. Only 41 percent support Romney, while 10 percent are undecided.

Even if Romney wins every undecided non-Hispanic Catholic vote, he would only narrowly best Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s 52 percent share during his razor-thin victory in 2000. Bush won support from 56 percent of non-Hispanic Catholics during his comfortable win in 2004.

Even Sen. John McCain won 52 percent of the non-Hispanic Catholic vote in 2008, despite running a poor campaign against Sen. Barack Obama’s wave.

Romney is only slightly ahead of Obama among church-going white Catholics, 46.6 percent to 45.3 percent.

Forty-eight percent of the poll respondents were Democrats; 33 percent were Republicans.

Non-Hispanic whites comprised 65 percent of the Catholics polled; 29 percent were Hispanic.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “[t]he Obama Administration has gone too far in placing restrictions on religious freedom when implementing their programs and policies.”

That’s a reference to Obama’s controversial 2012 policy that forces all denominations to provide their employees with free contraception and some abortion-related services via insurance companies.

Administration officials has suggested they will exempt churches that pass a multi-part government test. Religious leaders from many denominations have promised to oppose the president’s edict in court and at the ballot box.

The poll’s numbers will be disappointing for Romney, and should push him to step up his outreach to Catholics in crucial swing states including Ohio, Iowa, Virginia and Pennsylvania, said Catholic advocates.

But the poll showed that most Catholics are philosophically closer to the GOP than to progressives, said Maureen Ferguson, a senior policy advisor at The Catholic Association.

Seventy-eight percent said rights come from nature and God, not government, she said. “It gets to the fundamental question of government, she said, adding that “one [party] is 100 percent on one side, and the other is 100 percent on the other side.”

In battleground states, “Catholics continue to account for a higher percentage of the electorate than their overall percentage of the population. … Catholics are the key swing vote,” said Matt Smith, president of Catholic Advocate.

His group is trying to boost Catholic turnout in the 2012 election, and help elect Romney.

Also, Catholics who regularly attend Mass are also more likely to vote, he said, creating a slight advantage for Romney.

“Any successful outreach to Catholics must address the prominence issues such as the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty hold, particularly among Mass-attending Catholics,” Smith said.

Romney is trying to boost his Catholic support by hiring Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org, to spur support and turnout.

The Catholic advocates were coy about their registration, turnout and advocacy plans.

“We are producing a Catholic voter guide that will be very widely distributed” before the election by lay Catholics, Ferguson said, adding that “we don’t want to telegraph in public what we want to do.”

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