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Who Will Catholics Choose This November -- Obama or Romney?

"too close to call"

This year, the Catholic Church made its issues with the Obama administration's policies more than clear -- particularly on the contraception mandate, which requires faith-based organizations and colleges to violate conscience. Considering the very public spat between church and state, many commentators have wondered how the fallout will translate, if at all, at the polls come November.

Barack Obama fundraiser

Let's take a brief trip down memory lane. In 2008, Obama captured the Catholic vote (about 24 percent of the nation calls itself Catholic) by a wide margin -- 54 percent to challenger John McCain's 45 percent. In contrast, in 2004, George W. Bush beat Democratic opponent John Kerry (52 percent to 47 percent). Depending on the election year, Catholic voters have been known to favor the Democrat or the Republican (it varies).

Despite Obama's past victory among this cohort, believers are now showing concern -- and tend to agree with the Bishops' fears about the contraceptive mandate. Religion News Service has more about a poll that the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released two months ago:

The poll, released Wednesday (Aug. 1) by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life as the contraception mandate took effect, found that among Catholics who are aware of the bishops’ protests, 56 percent say they agree with the bishops’ concerns, as opposed to 36 percent who disagree.

That’s stronger than among Americans at large who have heard of the bishops’ concerns, where 41 percent agree with the bishops and 47 percent disagree.

The same poll found, though, that these beliefs -- that the Catholic Church is under siege by the administration's controversial policy -- have not yet translated into the political sphere. When the results were collected, Obama had 51 percent of Catholic voters' support, while Romney had only 42 percent. There's no doubt that these proportions can and have changed leading up to the election, as voters learn more about the candidates.

But the question right now, especially among campaign insiders, remains: In which direction will the Catholic vote swing?

New research analysis from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University seems to indicate that the Catholic vote is currently a toss-up -- one that tonight's vice-presidential debate could have an impact on. The center's official blog reports:

Thursday's VP debate will be the first with two Catholic candidates from opposing parties meeting in a televised national election forum. As they meet, the "Catholic vote" is back to "too close to call" with President Obama leading among all Catholic registered voters (49% Obama to 45% Romney) and Gov. Romney leading among all likely Catholic voters (50% Romney to 44% Obama). This week's new data are from two sources; Gallup and Pew...Likely voter estimates are now revealing the importance of enthusiasm and turnout for the eventual outcome. Currently, 84 percent of Catholic registered voters say they will definitely vote in November.

Unlike in years past it will be more difficult to know which candidate "won" the Catholic vote in the end. Exit polls have been cut from 19 states so we will have no national picture of the vote. CARA will rely on Gallup and the National Election Study to track Catholic voting history. It's unprecedented for two Catholic candidates to face off in a national forum that is likely to be so heavily watched. It will be interesting to see if faith becomes part of the discussion and if the debate moves the Catholic vote one way or the other.

Clearly, it's a toss-up. And with weeks still left in the campaign season, anything is possible. Will Catholics decide that Obama is too hostile to the faith to be trusted with a second term -- or will the contraceptive mandate and other related issues have little sway over voters? Only time will tell.

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