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WASHINGTON LETTER Jun-27-2008 (880 words) Backgrounder and analysis. With graphic. xxxn

The elusive Catholic voter: A somewhat contradictory statistical look

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- If you could program a computer to design a person according to the statistical portrait of U.S. Catholics depicted in the latest data from two surveys, someone like the fictional "Susan Shea" might emerge as an "average" representation of who makes up the church.

This "average" Catholic may not be affiliated with either party, but leans toward the Democrats, believes abortion should be legal in most cases and supports stricter environmental regulations. She would prefer diplomacy over military intervention but would just as soon the U.S. stayed out of international problems.

Her attitudes about government and public affairs are shaped largely by her personal experience and what she learns from the news media, rather than anything she has been taught by the church. And she pays pretty close attention to what's going on politically at least some of the time.

"Shea" is pretty happy with her own standard of living and very satisfied with her family life and doesn't worry much about crime or terrorism affecting her personally.

But she's not so pleased with the way things are going in the country. For one thing, she's pretty dissatisfied with the way the U.S. political system works. She thinks the government should do more to provide health care and help the needy, even if it means more national debt and bigger government.

After exit polling from the 2004 presidential election found that "moral values" stood out as the most important consideration for voters, campaign strategists have focused more than ever on how to appeal to voters of various faiths. With another close presidential election shaping up, analysts working for both parties will no doubt be parsing any faith-based polling for clues as to how to appeal to Catholic voters.

Two sets of public opinion survey data released over a few days in June complement each other in suggesting what might define the "Catholic voter" this election year.

Reams of information were included in data from the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released June 23. This followed the release a few days earlier of an election year forecast of who will constitute Catholic voters by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The CARA study of 1,007 Catholic voters found 41 percent unaffiliated with either the Democratic Party or Republican Party, with 38 percent who are registered Democrats and 21 percent who are registered Republicans. In the CARA study:

-- Seventy-eight percent said the U.S. should guarantee basic health care for all citizens.

-- Fifty-eight percent said a woman should have the right to choose an abortion.

-- Forty-one percent said they believe all human life, from conception to natural death, is sacred.

In the Pew study, the largest segment of the Catholics surveyed, 35 percent, said they are most influenced by personal experience in their thinking about government and public affairs.

The next-largest segment was 23 percent who said they're most influenced by the news media, followed by 14 percent who cited their education. Just 9 percent said religious beliefs are their biggest influence.

When it comes to deciding questions of right and wrong, "practical experience and common sense" were cited as the strongest influence by 57 percent, followed by 22 percent who said religious teachings and beliefs are their main influences.

According to Pew's survey of more than 35,000 people nationwide, including more than 8,000 Catholics, the following characteristics define Catholic Americans' views on political issues. Unless otherwise noted, the figures for Catholics mirror those for the population as a whole within 5 percentage points or less.

-- Thirty-six percent describe their politics as conservative, 38 percent say they're moderates and 18 percent describe themselves as liberals.

-- Sixty percent of Catholics say stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost.

-- Sixty-four percent say good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace, compared to 25 percent who said the best way to ensure peace is through military strength.

-- Just over half, 55 percent, said the U.S. should concentrate on domestic problems instead of overseas concerns, compared to 36 percent who said "it's best for the future of the country to be active in world affairs."

-- Sixty-three percent said the government should do more to help the needy and 51 percent said they prefer a bigger government with more services.

-- Sixteen percent believe abortion should be legal in all cases, and another 32 percent say it should be legal in most cases. Just 18 percent said it should be illegal in all cases; 27 percent said it should be illegal in most cases.

-- Seventy-seven percent said they are very satisfied with their family life; another 16 percent are "somewhat satisfied."

-- Seventy-seven percent said they are at least somewhat satisfied with their standard of living.

For the Pew data, the statistical margin of error for the sample of 8,054 Catholics has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points.

CARA's data, with parts of it gathered over several years, has a statistical margin of error ranging between plus or minus 2.3 percentage points and plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.


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