Why is Mitt Romney winning the Catholic vote?

By Scott Alessi| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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Super Tuesday is now in the books, and last night's election results brought more of the same: Mitt Romney continues to lead, Rick Santorum remains a contender, and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are hanging on despite being written off as potential winners of the Republican nomination.

And once again, Catholic voters are a talking point among analysts who wish to dissect the results. In Ohio, Romney's slim margin of victory was aided by taking 43 percent of Catholic voters, according to a CNN exit poll. Data released today by the Pew Forum shows Romney also taking the Catholic vote in Georgia--despite losing the state to Gingrich, who is a Catholic--and gaining 75 percent of Catholic voters in Massachusetts. In a fourth state, Tennessee, Romney took 35 percent of the Catholic vote, just one percentage point behind Santorum, the state's winner.

These results are nothing new. Romney's win last week in Michigan was also aided by Catholic voters, and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown has been tracking the candidates' success among Catholic voters, reporting today that Romney so far has won 50 percent of the Catholic vote, compared to Santorum's 22 percent and Gingrich's 18 percent.

The reason that some find these numbers odd, of course, is that Romney is a Mormon, while his two closest competitors, Santorum and Gingrich, are both Catholics. What's even more interesting is that Santorum's platform is heavily focused on his faith and values and is clearly aimed at religious voters (and is thus winning him the favor of evangelical Christians).

It is hard to say why Catholics are choosing the one candidate among the top three who doesn't share their faith. Perhaps they are more concerned about the economy than faith issues. Maybe they are just turned off by Santorum's approach to faith, or by Gingrich's checkered past before converting to Catholicism. Or possibly religion doesn't matter in this primary race nearly as much as so-called experts seem to think it does.

Despite all the analysis, the results really don't tell us much about Catholics' voting preferences. The voters being polled are Republicans who actually take it upon themselves to vote in a primary, making them a rather small subset of the overall voting population. The Catholics in these polls are therefore a small number of overall Catholic voters, who themselves are often all over the spectrum in their voting habits.

The more important question will be, once the primary battle finally comes to a close, whether the Republicans' eventual nominee can unite the party's voters--Catholic and non-Catholic alike--in time for the general election.