There is so much to chew over in the latest batch of data from the Pew Forum’s prodigious Religious Landscape Survey, but combine the Pew’s numbers on Catholic party affiliation with a lesser-noted new survey from Georgetown’s CARA institute, and the most important and eye-popping shift of all jumps right out: Namely, that the Republican party is losing–in droves–the Catholic voters who are critical to success in November and into the future.
The Pew numbers alone suggest the growing GOP losses among what is considered the biggest religious swing vote: A 2004 Pew survey concluded that the historic Democratic dominance among Catholics was at an end, with Republicans “approaching parity with the Democrats among Catholics, who once were a heavily Democratic constituency. The Democratic margin has shrunk from 43%-to-38% in 1992 to 44%-to-41% today,” the 2004 report said. The data released yesterday (June 23) show that just 23 percent of Catholics identify as Republican, and 10 percent “lean” to the GOP, for a total of 33 percent, while 33 percent of Catholics identify as Democrats and 15 percent “lean” Democratic, for a total of 48 percent–a hefty 15 percent differential. Ten percent identified as independent, according to the Pew results.
Now check out the June 20 survey, “Election ’08 Forecast,” from CARA (the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) at Georgetown, and the shift is even more dramatic: Only 21 percent of Catholic voters (some 47 million adults) either strongly or weakly affiliate as a Republican today compared to 31 percent who identified as Republican in 2004.
By contrast, 38 percent of Catholic voters identify themselves, either strongly or weakly, with the Democratic Party, down just one percentage point from CARA’s numbers in 2004. In fact, even among weekly Mass attenders the Dems have a big edge, though not as large as in the wider Catholic community: According to CARA, 53 percent of weekly Mass attending Catholics are Democrats or lean Democratic, while 43 percent ID with the GOP or lean Republican.
Both Pew and CARA show that stands on like war and peace have hurt Republicans, along with tax policies favoring the wealthy that Catholics do not agree with at all. Moreover, the GOP can’t rely on the usual hot-buttons of abortion and gay marriage, as those issues are finding even less traction among Catholics this year.
The big shift is in those who say they are independent, moving from 30 percent of Catholic voters in 2004 to 41 percent this year. If Democrats haven’t picked up Catholic loyalists, they at least haven’t hemorrhaged like the GOP. But they still need to bring them out on Election Day. As CARA’s director of polling, Mark Gray, concludes: “Even with a clear edge in party identification, Obama and the Democrats will need to do well mobilizing Catholic Democrats to take advantage of this…In the past two presidential elections the Republicans have been noted to be more effective at mobilizing voters using religion and religious organizations–often using the issue of abortion.”

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