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Obama’s Catholic Voter Problem?

Barack Obama lost the Catholic vote in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary by more than a two-to-one margin despite his campaign’s extensive Catholic outreach efforts. Among Pennsylvania Democrats, exit polls also showed significant differences in candidate preference between those who attend worship services at least once a week and those who never attend at all. Senior Fellow John Green and Associate Director Mark O’Keefe discussed these findings and looked ahead to the contests in Indiana and North Carolina.


John Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life


Mark O’Keefe, Associate Director, Web Publishing, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Hillary Clinton was victorious in the Pennsylvania primary. What role did religious voters play?

The religious affiliation of voters played a major role in the outcome, but the patterns were very similar to those seen in the nominating contests in other states. According to the exit polls, Clinton did very well with white Catholics, winning 72% of their vote. She also did well with white Protestants and Jews, winning 59% and 61% of their votes, respectively.

As in the past, Obama did very well with African Americans, most of whom are Protestants, winning 90% of their vote. He also won 62% of the religiously unaffiliated vote. Obama generally did well with non-whites and with religious minorities as well.

The results also showed evidence of a “worship attendance gap” among Pennsylvania’s Democrats: Regardless of religious affiliation, people who attend worship services at least once a week supported Clinton over Obama 59% to 41%, while people who never attend worship services supported Obama over Clinton 55% to 45%. However, those who attend worship services at least once a week were twice as numerous at the polls as those who never attend worship services, so in the end Clinton benefited more from the effects of this gap.

Were there any big surprises in the results?

The big surprise was how little change there was in the support for the candidates among religious groups despite the fierce campaigning in the state, which included extensive outreach to the Catholic community. Obama, for example, received strong support from Sen. Bob Casey, a popular Catholic politician. Some analysts expected the “Casey Democrats” to shift toward Obama and help him break into the white Catholic vote, but this didn’t really happen.

This result is reminiscent of the inability of Ted Kennedy to deliver white Catholics to Obama in the Massachusetts primary. All told, Clinton’s outreach to Catholics appears to have been more effective than Obama’s — but the same could also be said about her outreach to other faith groups.

Do we know why white Catholic voters have been choosing Clinton over Obama?

Not exactly. But the exit polls and other data reveal that the economy was the most important issue to Pennsylvania Democrats. We know that Catholic organizations, such as Catholics United, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics for the Common Good, have been emphasizing the theme of “the common good” in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Clinton’s speeches on the economy, which include long lists of specific policy proposals, may well have boosted her standing among the state’s Catholics who share these concerns. She also likely benefited from memories of the more prosperous economy during her husband’s administration.

When looking at the Pennsylvania primary results, however, it is hard to separate the effect of religion from the effects of age, income and gender. As in past contests, Clinton did well with older, working-class women, a demographic that overlaps significantly with Pennsylvania’s Catholics. Cultural factors may have mattered as well: Rural residents and gun owners voted for Clinton. And frankly, Obama’s race may also have been an issue for some voters.

It is worth noting, however, that Clinton received 74% of the vote among white Catholics who attend worship services at least once a week — a substantially larger percentage than her support among people with incomes of less than $50,000 (54%), women (59%), people over 60 years old (62%), gun owners (63%), high school graduates (64%) and rural residents (64%). And it was also substantially higher than her 59% among voters who said race was a factor when they cast their ballot.

So does Obama have a serious problem attracting Catholic voters nationally?

From the point of view of the primaries, it appears that he does. The Obama campaign has made a strong effort to deal with this problem but has had only limited success so far.

Could this problem persist in the general election if Obama is the Democratic nominee? It might, and, if so, it would pose a challenge for Obama in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. We should keep in mind, however, that many of the Democratic Catholics who did not vote for Obama in the primaries might well support him in the fall against John McCain. But on the other hand, not all white Catholics are Democrats — many are independents or Republicans. If nothing else, this means that white Catholics are a key group to watch.

To be fair, one might also ask if Clinton has an “African American problem” or an “unaffiliated problem.” After all, she has not done well with these groups in the primaries, and she will need strong support from these voters in the fall if she is her party’s nominee. One substantial difference, however, is that black Protestants and unaffiliated voters tend to be more strongly Democratic in their partisanship than white Catholics, so it might be easier for Clinton to rally them.

Where does the nominating race go from here?

The next two primaries are on May 6 in Indiana and North Carolina, and they may reflect the religious voting patterns we saw in the Keystone State.

Indiana is like Pennsylvania in some respects, but different in others. Clinton’s support among white Catholics and white Protestants could help her cause, but Indiana is next to Obama’s home state of Illinois, and Obama has won in two other states bordering Illinois — Missouri and Wisconsin. In these contests, Obama and Clinton essentially split the Catholic vote. It will be interesting to see if Obama can replicate this pattern in the Hoosier State.

Obama is likely to do well in North Carolina on the strength of his support among black Protestants, much as he has done in previous Southern primaries. The Tar Heel State may also be a test of the impact of race: The state Republican Party plans to run a TV ad linking Obama to the controversial statements of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Interestingly, both McCain and the Republican National Committee have disavowed this ad in advance.

And what about McCain?

On the day of the Pennsylvania primary, McCain was in Youngstown, Ohio, one of the centers of white, working-class Catholics in America, offering some “straight talk” on the economy. It appears that McCain plans to concede no ground to the Democrats in building a broad coalition that will have an explicit religious component. The degree of success of this effort will have major implications for the Democratic coalition as well.

Read more about religion and the 2008 campaign at

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