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There has been a lot of talk this year concerning the role of evangelical Christians and Mormons on the Republican side, but considerably less about the key religious group for the 2012 GOP ticket: Catholics. For those who want to pretend religion isn’t a major factor in our elective process, we accept their decision to read no further. But reality is best faced without rose-colored glasses.
The electoral college math for 2012 is straightforward, unless you are predicting an unpredictable earthquake. President Barack Obama carried Indiana and North Carolina by the narrowest of margins. If presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney needs help in turning these states red, then it’s over.
So give Republicans the Hoosier State along with the home of the Tar Heels. This leaves four key states: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Romney will have to carry at least three of them to have a chance to reach 270.
Much is written about the Jewish voters on Florida’s Gold Coast, yet Catholicism is the single biggest denomination in the state. Catholics are also the key swing votes in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Although Virginia’s Catholic population is the smallest of the four, it is key to the vote in Northern Virginia, often the deciding ballots in a close statewide election.
Is it any wonder that the Hotline list of GOP vice-presidential favorites includes several Catholics. Among those widely discussed are Senators Marco Rubio and Kelly Ayotte; Governors Bob McDonnell, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal; and Rep. Paul Ryan.
Ideally religion should not be a part of any such equation. Yet politics is the ultimate reflection of human nature. Religion counts: record Catholic turnout in 1960 helped John F. Kennedy win a narrow electoral college majority while anti-Catholic sentiment helped sink Al Smith (1928) even in states regarded as reliably Democratic.
Working-class Catholics were generally reliable Democratic votes until 1980. Many defected that year, joining the so-called “Reagan Democrats” in voting Republican. Polls indicate many are on the political fence this year. They blamed former president George W. Bush for the Great Recession and helped elect Obama in 2008. But the economic pain has continued and some may punish the incumbent president for the prolonged economic slump.
Anyone on the list of potential VP nominees would be more than just a symbolic choice, as each is qualified for the role. But let’s be honest: Being Catholic is an important factor in their stars being on the rise over the GOP convention in Tampa. Seminal history seems preordained for Republicans this year. Given Romney’s résumé, a Catholic running mate – especially one with working-class roots – seems sent from central casting.
It does appear that a Catholic is odds-on to be on the national ticket. To be sure, Catholics are about one-fourth of the U.S. voting population and not a monolith. But in politics, identity matters and there is no denying that for the ticket, forging a closer identity with Catholic voters in key states in the electoral college is a necessary formula for having any chance at defeating the president.
Paul Goldman is former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Mark J. Rozell is professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of numerous studies on religious conservatives in U.S. politics. Among his books on religion and politics is “Catholics and Politics: The Dynmaic Tension Between Faith and Power (2008).”
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.