Surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press show that white, non-Hispanic Catholic support for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama has grown, taking him from a 13-percentage-point deficit in late September to an 8-point lead in late October. Pew Forum Senior Fellow John Green looks behind these numbers to identify some of the factors that may be driving this shift. He also explains how state ballot initiatives on gay marriage might impact the presidential election and analyzes the response of white evangelicals and others to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate.

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

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

In this Q&A:
Obama’s lead among white Catholics
How Obama could succeed where John Kerry did not
Gay marriage on the ballot
The Palin effect

Question & Answer

John GreenPew Forum tracking of surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain had a 13-percentage-point lead among white Catholic registered voters in late September. But the group’s support for Democratic presidential candidate Sen.Barack Obama grew in October, giving Obama an 8-point lead in late October. What might explain this shift?

Perhaps the best explanation for the recent shift among white Catholics is the presidential campaign itself. If one looks inside the numbers, the largest part of the shift was among white Catholic independents, with only modest changes among white Catholics who identify as Republicans or Democrats. Independents are the voters one would expect to shift the most in the midst of a presidential campaign.

A factor that may have moved these independents, as well as perhaps some of the partisan Catholics, is the financial situation, including the financial collapse on Wall Street and the government bailout of financial institutions. Like many Americans, white Catholics have listed the economy as an issue that would be very important to their candidate choice all year long, going way back to the presidential primaries. These recent economic calamities may have led many white Catholics, particularly independents, to connect their economic priorities to their choice for president in a way that favors Obama over McCain.

During this same time period, other things were going on as well, and one of those things was increased dissatisfaction with the McCain campaign. Among white Catholics – as well as among other Americans – we see a decline in positive views of the McCain campaign, perhaps associated with some of the perceived negative advertising but also some of the criticism of that advertising in the press. There has also been an increased acceptance of Obama, with more Americans – including more white Catholics – being able to picture him as serving in the Oval Office.

A final possibility related to the campaign is that Obama has enjoyed an enormous advantage in campaign resources. These resources have made it possible for him to communicate with many voters, including white Catholics, in an effective way.

Why have white Catholics been such a key swing vote in recent elections?

There is a long history of white Catholic voters being swing voters. If one looks at polling data over the last 20 years, white Catholics do indeed move from one party to another depending on the candidate and the issues, and they almost always end up on the winning side. A lot of analysts look at white Catholics as a key barometer of where the election is going.

Whether this pattern is just because white Catholics are now so diverse and so well-integrated into American society that they simply reflect all of the divisions in the American electorate, or whether there’s something special about the politics of white Catholics, is a subject of considerable debate. Time and time again, we see white Catholics being a crucial part of the campaign and a crucial part of the results. In the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush won the white Catholic vote, which contributed to his narrow re-election victory.

In fact, white Catholics have been in motion politically throughout the 2008 election cycle. Back in January 2007, a majority of white Catholics said they preferred a generic Democratic president over a generic Republican president. Later in the year, when specific Republican and Democratic candidates were mentioned, white Catholics shifted around, sometimes favoring a Republican candidate and sometimes favoring a Democratic candidate. The recent shift among white Catholics toward the Democratic candidate fits well within this overall pattern of change.

Given all this motion, it would not be surprising if there are additional changes in the final week of the campaign. For example, some white Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week might well return to the Republican fold on Election Day.

How has Obama, a black Protestant, succeeded with white Catholics in 2008 in a way that Sen. John Kerry, a white Catholic, did not when he was the Democratic nominee in 2004?

It’s a really interesting question as to how Protestant Obama might do better among white Catholics than Catholic Kerry. Part of the answer may be that there is a different context to the 2008 election than the 2004 election. This is a year that favors Democrats much more than 2004, and it might very well be that any Democratic nominee would do at least somewhat better among white Catholics than Kerry did.

But I think there are some special things about the Obama campaign that may be contributing to this white Catholic shift and may, in fact, lead to white Catholics giving Obama a majority on Election Day. Obama talks much more comfortably about his faith than Kerry did during the 2004 campaign. And Obama talks about it in a way that connects in a fairly straightforward fashion to Catholic social teachings on economic issues. And if one adds other issues that Obama has championed, such as opposition to the war in Iraq, there are a number of key points that white Catholics may find very cogent on religious grounds.

Obama may have learned some important lessons from the Democratic primaries, where his campaign also made a big effort to reach out to white Catholic voters, especially in key states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. He wasn’t actually all that successful in those primaries, mostly losing the white Catholic vote to Sen. Hillary Clinton, but Obama may be applying that knowledge in the general election campaign.

A final difference between 2004 and 2008 may be the more intensive campaigning within the Catholic community on behalf of Obama. New organizations, such as the Catholic Alliance for the Common Good, have been very active alongside older groups, such as Pax Christi and Catholics for Choice. The revival of a “religious left” in national politics has been an important feature of the 2008 campaign.

There remains, of course, a big impediment for some white Catholics in supporting Obama, just as there was with Kerry in 2004, and that impediment is the social issues, especially abortion. But it could be the case this year that white Catholics, like many other religious Americans, have chosen to give a higher priority to economic issues than to cultural issues.

Gay marriage is on the ballot in three states – California, Arizona and Florida. How is religion impacting these measures, and could gay marriage affect the presidential election in any of these states, as it arguably did in Ohio in 2004?

The subject of same-sex marriage has a very strong tie to religion. In nearly all religious communities, the more traditional or observant members of those communities are more likely to oppose same-sex marriage, whereas people who have less traditional views, who are less involved in their faith or who have more liberal theology tend to be more supportive of gay marriage, civil unions or other legal arrangements for gays and lesbians.

Not only are there variations within religious communities, there are variations across them as well, with white evangelical Protestants and Mormons being particularly opposed to same-sex marriage, and religiously unaffiliated people and the Jewish community being much more supportive of it. In each of the states where same-sex marriage is on the ballot, religious communities are heavily engaged in the campaign. I believe that on Election Day we will continue to see a strong religious factor in the vote on both sides of the issue.

There is some evidence that in certain key states, such as Ohio, same-sex marriage made a difference in the 2004 presidential election, helping President Bush because it increased the conservative Christian turnout. There is at least one state where something like this might happen in 2008 and that’s Florida, a battleground state where the race is very close. Obama is a little bit ahead in polls, but most people believe that Florida could go either way, and it could very well be that having same-sex marriage on the ballot could help mobilize conservative Christians to the benefit of McCain.

But in the other states, the same-sex marriage ballot proposals are unlikely to have that impact because those states are already likely to go one way or another in the presidential race. California is very likely to vote Democratic, and Arizona is McCain’s home state and it would be very surprising if he didn’t win there.

Interestingly, in these states the effect might be the reverse: the presidential campaign might have an impact on the fate of those ballot initiatives. Obama has a strong following among blacks, Hispanic Catholics and Protestants. There is reason to believe that there may be a very high turnout among these groups because they want to vote for Obama. But we know from polling that many racial or ethnic minority Christians tend to have conservative views on social issues and tend to oppose same-sex marriage. What this all means is that blacks and Hispanics who turn out to vote for Obama may well cast a vote against same-sex marriage. So, ironically, the Obama campaign may have the indirect effect of helping to defeat same-sex marriage in a “blue” state such as California.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian organization, recently toldThe New York Times that the California ballot initiative on gay marriage is more important than the presidential election. Why do some religious conservatives view this as such an important watershed?

Tony Perkins’ remarks may have an element of politics in them in that he might be trying to keep the activists on his side of the issue involved in the campaign, particularly out in California where the presidential race isn’t close. Still, I suspect there’s a good bit of substance to what Perkins has said. Many Christian conservatives see same-sex marriage, along with abortion, as the critical moral issue of our time because of its impact on the family and its connection to traditional religious beliefs. And the vote in California could be absolutely crucial to the future of this issue across the country.

California, after all, is the most populous state in the union. It’s a state where lots of trends are set in politics, religion and the broader culture. Just a few years ago, in 2000, in a slightly different context, a majority of Californians voted to oppose same-sex marriage. Then the California Supreme Court legalized it earlier this year, hence this ballot issue. But if this ballot issue were to fail and same-sex marriage were to remain legal in California, it would signal a dramatic change in the opinions of Californians. It could have a powerful symbolic effect on the issue of same-sex marriage at the national level and in other states.

The view of many Christian conservatives is that defeat on this measure in California would essentially open the floodgates to same-sex marriage in other states. It’s very important for them to keep those floodgates closed, or at least as closed as they can.

McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov.Sarah Palin for his running mate was expected to energize the Republican Party base, particularly white evangelical Christians, a constituency that was so vital to President Bush’s 2004 electoral victory. Has that happened, and how have other religious groups responded to Palin?

There is considerable evidence that the nomination of Sarah Palin has indeed energized the Republican base, especially white evangelical Protestants. That has allowed McCain to get a very strong level of support from grassroots activists but also a higher degree of enthusiasm among base Republican voters.

A lack of activists and a lack of enthusiastic support from Republican voters were big problems for McCain before the Palin nomination. This isn’t to say that all white evangelicals, conservative Christians or base Republican voters are equally favorable toward Palin. There is some indication, particularly as the campaign has gone on and there has been more discussion about her experience and record, that there has been a diminution of support in those groups. But, overall, it has been very positive for the McCain camp in that respect.

But Palin does not seem to have the same kind of positive effect outside the Republican base and beyond white evangelical Protestants. There had been some hope among Republicans that Palin would help McCain expand his appeal to swing voters and independents, and perhaps women voters. So far, her nomination doesn’t appear to have been particularly helpful with these groups. To sum up, Palin might help account for McCain’s continuing strength among white evangelicals but also for him not having a higher level of support among other religious groups.

This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar.