Santorum Loses Catholic Vote–But Did He Ever Have It?

As they awaited the final results from Michigan, probably the single biggest topic of conversation in the chattering classes last night was the shocking news from the exit polls that Rick Santorum had lost Michigan Catholics to Mitt Romney by a 44-37 margin. Immediately there was speculation that Rick’s visceral dissing of JFK’s church-state relations speech might have contributed significantly to this result, or had perhaps cost him Michigan altogether.

That was my initial reaction, too, until I started wondering: why did we all assume Santorum had an advantage among Catholics in the first place? Yes, he’s an outspoken “traditionalist” Catholic, cozy with its famous Opus Dei elite, happiest in surroundings like Florida’s overtly traditionalist Ave Maria University, and very self-identified with the Bishops in their current fight with the Obama administration over its contraception coverage mandate.

Yes, as I and others have amply documented, the idea that Catholics are more conservative than Americans generally, even on “social issues,” is pretty much a myth. But you had to figure that the kind of Catholics who choose to vote in Republican primaries are pretty significantly correlated with “traditionalists” like Rick, right?

That’s actually not so clear at all. The last contest with exit polling by the networks was Florida. There Santorum won 13% of the overall vote, but just 10% of Catholics; Mitt Romney ran a bit better among Catholics than he did overall. Now maybe you could say Florida’s heavily Latino Catholic vote is atypical. What about South Carolina? There Santorum won 17% of the overall vote, but just 15% of Catholics. Again, Romney peformed a bit better among Catholics than among voters generally.

If you want to write off both those states because Santorum did not campaign heavily there, and/or because fellow-Catholic Newt Gingrich was the most important non-Romney candidate, then go back to Iowa. For some reason, Edison Research’s entrance polls there did not break down voters by religious affiliation, but did ask if voters considered themselves evangelical or “born-again” Christians. Now that’s a term normally associated with Protestants, though ABC’s polling analyst Gary Langer has suggested that 14% of Catholics identify themselves as “born-again.” Even if you take that “born-again Catholic” minority into account, it doesn’t look like Rick did that well among his co-religionists, winning only 14% of non-“born-agains” as opposed to his overall statewide percentage of 25% (again, Romney romped among non-“born-agains,” which obviously includes mainline Protestants, Jews, the unchurched, etc.).

So based on prior evidence, there’s really no particular reason to think the “Catholic vote” was ever Santorum’s to lose. His voting base has always been conservative evangelical Protestants, who also make up a high percentage of the voters fixated on making abortion illegal, a particularly strong Santorum demographic. I’m sure the JFK slur didn’t help, but this is one “surprise” in Michigan that really shouldn’t have been that surprising.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.