Scott Brown and Those Swinging Catholics

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life had an interesting article last week on The Catholic “Swing” Vote. I’m wondering how this might play out in Massachusetts where Senator Scott Brown has Catholics on his mind, and where Elizabeth Warren at least hasn’t fallen into the Democratic trap of gratuitously insulting the state’s largest religious group.

The Pew analysis shows that although Catholics are a swing vote nationally most Catholic subgroups are reliably Democratic or Republican. For example, conservative Catholics vote Republican, liberals vote Democratic, Hispanic and other minority Catholics vote Democratic. The one group that is up for grabs is moderate white Catholics. They were narrowly divided in 2000 and 2004 before breaking for Obama in 2008. The president maintains a lead with white moderate Catholics in 2008. These voters tend to the left on social issues like abortion and more conservatively on the role and size of government.

White Catholic moderates accounted for 32% of the overall Catholic vote nationally in 2008, down from 42% in 2000, but still the largest Catholic subgroup.  We can’t really say how large Catholic subgroups are in Massachusetts right now, since few pollsters ask about religious variables in the state.

One exception is Steve Koczela of MassInc Polling Group who asked religious variable questions in a survey taken in April. That poll found that 44% of respondents identified themselves as Catholic. Brown was leading Warren among Catholic voters by 46-39%.

The most detailed polling I’ve seen on Catholic policy attitudes in Massachusetts is now 8-10 years old, which makes it not terribly definitive. But for example in a May 2003 Boston Globe poll of Catholics in the  Archdiocese of Boston, 32% of Catholics agreed with the Church’s teachings on abortion, while 63% disagreed. Likewise 26% agreed with the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, 61% disagreed.

One would think that conservative Catholics would be most likely to support Brown, notwithstanding his backing for Roe v. Wade (which most state Catholics agree with in any case). Social justice (liberal) Catholics may not need any specific targeting from a Democratic liberal like Warren. That leaves the moderates and this is the group Brown seems to have in mind in the debates, where he is defending his support of the Blunt amendment on contraception limits in terms of championing the conscience rights of Catholics and Catholic institutions. He argues that he won’t pit Catholics against their Church and faith.

Back in February when I was trying to figure out what the impact of the contraceptives and Blunt amendment controversy might be on the senate race I wrote that Warren was avoiding the sort of casual contempt for Catholics that has been part of the Democratic tool box in the state recently. She still wisely stays away from that temptation while pounding Brown on the Blunt Amendment and staying to the left of the senator on women’s issues.

Brown however is trying, sometimes subtly, to let Catholic know he respects them and their conscience concerns. I hope we have more detailed data on religion forthcoming, perhaps in exit polls, so we can better gauge how his “Catholic Strategy” works out.



About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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