McCain Scores with Catholics on Super Tuesday

Deal W. Hudson
February 7, 2008

On Super Tuesday, exit polling on the Catholic vote was done in only 10 of the 22 GOP primary states. Senator John McCain won the Catholic vote in 8 out of 10 of those states. Gov. Mitt Romney won Catholics in Massachusetts and Georgia, while Gov. Mike Huckabee continued to attract little significant Catholic support.

McCain won the Protestant vote in only 6 out of those 10 states. McCain’s underperformance with Protestants could be an issue in the upcoming primary states of Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina.

Strikingly, in hard-fought Missouri, McCain lost Protestants to Huckabee by 11 points (26 percent to 37 percent) but was able to carry the state by winning the Catholic vote by 25 points (46 percent to 21 percent). This win came in spite of the fact that Missouri Protestants represented 74 percent of the vote statewide, while Catholics were only 20 percent of all Missouri voters.

Romney’s failure to attract the majority of Catholic voters, and in losing this key state, was a major disappointment to his campaign.

All the predictions of a Romney victory in California were upset, once again, by McCain’s connection with Catholic voters. McCain’s win of 41 percent of Catholic voters, over a quarter of the California electorate, provided him a surprising margin of victory over Romney (26 percent) and Huckabee (9 percent).

McCain’s record among religiously active Catholic voters in California is even stronger. He took 43 percent of active Catholics, as opposed to 21 percent for Romney and 10 percent for Huckabee. Those numbers were even higher in Missouri, where McCain won a remarkable 54 percent to Huckabee’s 24 percent and Romney’s 20 percent.

The off-setting Missouri numbers in the exit polling indicate that those who think abortion should always be legal voted 48 percent for McCain and 16 percent for Huckabee. This indicates that some voters have the perception that McCain is not pro-life, which is strange given his 0 percent pro-abortion rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America.

In California, the numbers on this issue were much the same, with McCain receiving 49 percent of those who want to make abortion “mostly legal.” Romney received 32 percent of this vote and Huckabee 7 percent. Among those who want to make abortion “mostly illegal,” McCain received 33 percent to Romney’s 41 percent, corroborating a public impression that Romney is more pro-life than McCain.

In Connecticut, where Catholics were 45 percent of the vote, McCain received 56 percent of self-identified Catholic voters and 54 percent of weekly mass-attendees. Among those who want abortion to be “mostly illegal,” he received the most votes among the candidates – 43 percent. But he also topped the list among voters who want an abortion “always legal” at 61 percent.

This pattern of the “two McCains” is repeated throughout the states where McCain won the Catholic vote. Clearly, there is some recognition of his pro-life record, but there is also the impression that he is friendly to pro-abortion voters.

When McCain’s pro-life record – with the exception of his support of federally funded embryonic stem cell research – becomes better known, will he lose support?

In addition to Missouri, Connecticut, and California, McCain won the Catholic vote in Arizona (57 percent), his home state; Illinois (52 percent); New Jersey (58 percent); New York (57 percent); and Tennessee (37 percent). He lost the Catholic vote to Romney in Massachusetts and Georgia.

As a McCain adviser told me this morning, the campaign is pleased that McCain did well in those states (and among Catholics) that have experienced illegal immigrants firsthand – Connecticut, Arizona, and New Jersey. He commented that “McCain’s compassionate stance on immigration may turn out to be a plus for McCain, after all.”

During the course of the campaign, both Romney and Huckabee have begun to advocate harsher measures toward illegal immigrants than they did in the beginning. McCain, on the other hand, has begun to stress the need for border security. How this plays out in primary states along the Mexican border, like Texas and New Mexico, remains to be seen. But, thus far, McCain has not suffered too much for his position, as his primary victories in California and Florida attest.

McCain won every county in California except for three in rural areas, which is remarkable for a senator who has been embroiled in the immigration controversy for the past three years.

Some will say the Hispanic vote was the deciding factor, but, thus far, there is no exit polling to substantiate that assertion. Even if true, however, it’s good news for McCain in the general election, where he will need to draw Hispanic voters to beat the Democratic candidate.

Only McCain, as the GOP candidate, would be able to attract Hispanic voters the way Bush did in 2004, winning 44 percent. (The subsequent immigration debate depressed Hispanic support for the GOP in 2006 to 30 percent.)

The good news for McCain is that, at present, he is popular with both active and inactive Catholic voters. But the bad news cuts both ways: As his pro-life record becomes better known, he may lose votes from abortion supporters; meanwhile, as Huckabee and Romney’s supporters continue to paint him as a pro-abortion candidate, he may lose support from pro-lifers as well.

As the primaries continue, time will tell which of the two McCains will win out in the minds of voters.

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