Six months before the general election, analysts say the necessary polling has not been done to offer a clear picture of Catholic voter attitudes in 2016 regarding the presidential race or on key issues.
But they expect polls in coming months to shed light on Catholic voters’ preferences in a contentious presidential campaign, marked by sharp differences on issues like immigration.
Among other things, that data might reveal whether there has been a ‘Francis effect’ on Catholic voters in the United States.
“One of the issues is that the exit polls haven’t been asking many questions about religion,” said Stephen Schneck, the director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.
Mark Gray, the director of Catholic polls for CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) which is affiliated with Georgetown University and provides social science research on the Catholic Church, expressed frustration that the exit polls sponsored by major media have only asked questions about voters’ religious denomination to see if they are Evangelical Christians.
He said it’s almost as if the secular media “think religion is dying and it doesn’t matter, and they think evangelical Christians are the last ones holding on.”
Gray noted that Gallup, which used to track such questions in its surveys, has gotten out of political polling.
“We’ve never known so little [about] how religion is playing a part in the election in the modern era, since we’ve been polling,” he said.
Gray said Catholic voters are an interesting, sometimes unpredictable group, who are worth polling.
“Usually, if you win the Catholic vote, you win,” he said. But he said that in the midst of a “really interesting election,” the story of how Catholics voted in the primaries and their views up to this point on issues approaching the general election amount to “lost history.”
As to whether Pope Francis’ popularity, and his visit this past fall to the United States, has impacted Catholic voters, Gray said that so far, “There’s no data there.”
Greg Smith, the associate director for religion research at the Pew Research Center, said that as the general election nears, Pew will be conducting polls on people’s religious denominations and their voting preferences.
“We should have lots of data,” he said.
But he cautioned that past polls have indicated that even popular religious leaders such as Pope Francis tend to have limited influence on the voting patterns of their flocks.
He pointed out how in past surveys, significant numbers of Catholics tended to counter Church teaching and voice support for issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, despite the popularity of the pope at the time.
“Each voter has their set of unique background characteristics, economic concerns and political predispositions,” he said.
Like other polling experts interviewed by Crux, Smith said that Catholics tend to mirror the general voting public. In recent elections, “Catholics have been closely divided, as has the public as a whole,” he said.
The majority of self-described Catholic voters have gone to the winning presidential candidate in recent elections – for Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008, and for George W. Bush in 2004.
Smith said that according to Pews’ research on the religious landscape of the United States, about 21 percent of Americans are Catholics, and about one-third of Catholics are Hispanic. Smith noted that in the most recent presidential election, three quarters of Hispanic Catholics voted for Obama, and about 60 percent of white Catholics voted for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
Smith noted that Pew did survey Catholics this past December on the hot-button issue of immigration. One-half of respondents said the growing number of newcomers from other countries strengthens American society, while 40 percent said they threaten traditional American customs and values.
The immigration issue “will be front and center” for Latino Catholics in the upcoming election, said Schneck. That could pose a problem for the likely Republican nominee, Donald Trump, who has voiced support for having a wall built along the U.S./Mexican border to block illegal immigration, and having the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States deported.
However, Schneck pointed out that Trump’s strong support among working class whites in places like Fall River, Massachusetts, and Pittsburgh probably includes significant numbers of Catholics. That could draw support from the Democratic party’s likely nominee, Hillary Clinton, a strong advocate for abortion rights, which is another wedge issue for Catholics.
Veteran pollster John Zogby, founder of the Zogby Poll, believes, “It’s very hard to pinpoint a Catholic vote, per se. It (being a ‘Catholic voter’) is not a principle source of identification for Catholics,” he said.
Between 2001-09, he polled American Catholics extensively for a study on Contemporary Catholic Trends sponsored by Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.
Zogby, the senior partner in John Zogby Strategies, which provides strategic consulting based on polling data, said that in his decades working in this field, he has never seen an election cycle like the one underway.
“There’s a deep-seated anger and frustration out there among a large section of voters…. This is an ‘I’ve had it!’ election,” he said.
When Pope Francis addressed a joint meeting of Congress this past fall, he urged political leaders and citizens in both parties to work together for the common good on issues like the dignity of human life, promoting opportunities for the poor, just immigration policies, and protection of the environment.
Reflecting on the current polling data, and probably also the political climate, Zogby said, “It’s very hard at this point in time to find ‘the Francis impact.’”
For his part, Catholic University’s Schneck thinks “there will be a ‘Francis effect’” among American Catholic voters, but he conceded, “It’s difficult to see it right at the moment.”
As the general election approaches, maybe time, and upcoming polls, will tell.