The White House’s early stance antagonized Catholics and could cost Democrats in November.
The Obama administration’s support for mandatory contraceptive coverage has put the Catholic Church in a quandary: sacrifice beliefs or face having its schools, charities and hospitals under government sanction.
It was an odd strategy by the White House. Politically, there appears to have been a short-term gain in that it helped stir the pot in the GOP presidential primary. But long term, it may serve to antagonize Catholic voters, even after the White House’s compromise position was announced on Friday. Come November, the issue could hurt Obama and his fellow Democrats.
Obama can’t win reelection with 2010 levels of support among white Catholics. Last cycle, Republicans won the white Catholic vote by a 59-39 margin. Sweeping GOP victories in crucial swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin could only have occurred with strong support from white Catholics. It was the best Republican year for white Catholic support since the 1920s.
It’s true that overall Catholics are a vote. Obama won 54 percent of all Catholic votes in 2008, while President George W. Bush won 52 percent of them in 2004. But the white Catholic vote is no longer a swing vote on the presidential level. Since 1972, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were the only Democrats to have won the white Catholic vote.
It’s notable that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was able to win white Catholics 52-48 even while Obama won them overall by a solid margin. The controversy over contraceptive coverage won’t help Obama chip away at that margin and could propel Republicans into a larger share of the overall Catholic vote in November.
Moreover, liberal Catholics are now upset with the administration like never before. Some of the most active Catholic supporters of Obama, such as former Ambassador Doug Kmiec and author Michael Sean Winters, now say they cannot vote for him. Media allies including E.J. Dionne, Mark Shields and Chris Matthews criticized Obama’s early stance and it’s unclear how they’ll react to the Friday announcement. Catholic allies of the president such as former DNC Chairman Tim Kaine and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) have also expressed disagreement with the mandate.
None are going to become Republicans any time soon, but for Catholics who are less tied into Democratic Party politics, the alienation from Obama is even more pronounced. The controversy over Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame in 2009 and the gutting of the Stupak Amendment already isolated liberal Catholics from the mainstream of Church life. Any Catholic involved in a pro-Obama effort in 2012 is going to lose any remaining credibility even among less devout Catholics.
Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
A version of this post was also published on Campaign and Election’s blog, Campaign Insider.