How Catholic Conservatives Could Quietly Remake the Republican Presidential Race

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Nati Harnik / AP

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition presidential candidate forum in Des Moines, Iowa, Oct. 22, 2011.

Updated 11:07am

As this point in the presidential campaign cycle, those of us in the press corps have typed tens of thousands of words about the influential role of evangelicals in selecting the next Republican nominee. Sure, sometimes we use the phrase “social conservatives” to recognize that evangelical Protestants aren’t the only voters who care about social issues. When it comes to specifics, however, we cite polls that track evangelical preferences and we write about candidates appearing at evangelical churches or winning endorsements from evangelical leaders.

But what about Catholic Republicans? “They have as much or more influence than evangelicals, and yet all of the attention has been on evangelicals,” says Professor Mark Rozell, who studies the religious right at George Mason University. In part that’s because evangelicals are behind well-known political gatherings and organizations such as the Values Voters Summit and Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition. Evangelicals also have religious leaders who feel free to endorse candidates, which gives evangelicals in the pews a sense of whom the high-profile figures in their community are backing. Bishops and priests, on the other hand, don’t endorse candidates.

Given that Catholics make up about a quarter of the GOP primary electorate, the question is nonetheless critical. Will they simply follow the lead of their evangelical brethren? Or are they poised to sweep uber-Catholic Rick Santorum all the way to his party’s nomination? The answer is probably neither.

It may be tricky to divine the preferences of conservative Catholic voters, but it’s not impossible.(It would be even easier if more pollsters would ask voters about their religious affiliation, but that’s a column for another day.) So let’s take a look at where the candidates stand with them.

There is no natural fit for the conservative Catholic voter. Or, as Deal Hudson, who directed Catholic outreach for both Bush/Cheney campaigns, recently put it to my TIME colleague Elizabeth Dias: “All of the potential nominees will have their challenges with Catholics.”

That assessment, of course, excludes Santorum from the definition of “potential nominee.” Because if you’re a purist conservative Catholic, Santorum is your man. His credentials on the social issues are beyond dispute. The defining issue of his Senate career was the fight he led to ban so-called “partial-birth abortion.” “If I’m a conservative non-compromising Catholic,” says Rozell, “then I probably like Rick Santorum and want to give him support in order to make a statement.” Unfortunately for Santorum, only 1% of Republican voters appear to fall into that category.

Herman Cain might once have been a reasonable option for conservative Catholics. But his confusing statements on abortion have all but eliminated that possibility. At best, Cain’s remarks indicate a lack of familiarity with the political debate over abortion. And at worst, he sounds like a pro-choice politician. He can talk to Rudy Giuliani about how that works out in Republican primaries.

As with the Republican electorate overall, conservative Catholics currently seem to be divided between Mitt Romney and Anybody But Romney. Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University, sees more pragmatic Catholic voters drifting over to the former Massachusetts governor. “Establishment Catholic Republicans are lining up behind Romney,” says Schneck. And Romney doesn’t have the same problem with Catholics as he does with evangelicals when it comes to his Mormon faith. “The Mormon issue is not an issue for Catholics,” explains Hudson. “Catholics as a group are highly sensitized to religious identity and freedom. They have been through that.”

But while Catholics may not care about the specifics of Romney’s faith, they are, if anything, more concerned about his record and position on abortion than evangelical voters are. That may be the frontrunner’s biggest obstacle to attracting meaningful Catholic support. As Michael Sean Winters pointed out this week on the National Catholic Reporter, Romney’s health care law in Massachusetts provided direct government funding for abortions. For Catholics who have voiced outrage over the possibility of indirect funding of abortion through Obama’s health reform law, this is a problem.

If Romney’s record on abortion is bad from a pro-life view, his position falls apart under scrutiny. During Romney’s 1994 Senate campaign, he told voters that he was a consistent supporter of abortion rights, adding “You will not see me wavering on that.” Although Romney’s position has changed several times since then, in this election, he and Cain are the only candidates who have refused to sign the pledge sponsored by the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List. Republican leaders hardly want to be in the position of appealing to Catholic voters in the general election by arguing that Romney is less “pro-abortion” than Obama. But that could happen. “The Catholic left has already published an article trying to tell Catholics that Mitt Romney is not really more pro-life than President Obama,” says Hudson. “There will be a vulnerability for Romney on that issue.”

For many conservative Catholics, that leaves Rick Perry as their default candidate of choice. It’s not an obvious match–Perry’s enthusiasm for the death penalty stands in harsh contrast to the Catholic church’s condemnation of the practice. And he does hang out with John Hagee, a Texas pastor whom Bill Donohue of the Catholic League once called “the biggest anti-Catholic bigot in the evangelical community.”

Looking closer, though, Catholic support for Perry makes sense. Opposition to capital punishment is far less important to the average Catholic than opposition to abortion. A poll released by Schneck’s institute earlier this week found that only 29% of American Catholics say that opposition to the death penalty is an aspect of Catholicism that is very important to them. “Politically conservative Catholics have been willing in the past to support pro-death penalty candidates as long as their position was right on other so-called life issues,” says Rozell.

In much the same way, Catholics who might have been put off by Perry’s very evangelical style have had eight years of George W. Bush to get used to evangelical culture. At the beginning of the campaign season, in fact, Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee was the favorite candidate of Republican Catholics. As for Perry’s evangelical bedfellows, Donohue has made peace with and now vouches for Hagee, turning his considerable ire instead on those who hold his former view of the Texas pastor. So Perry’s aggressive support for the death penalty and evangelicalism may not alienate conservative Catholics. And Hudson thinks the Texas governor’s more moderate approach to the immigration issue might actually be a selling point for them. “If you compare all the potential nominees’ positions on immigration,” he says, “Perry has the closest to the position of the Catholic bishops.”

If Rick Perry is looking to turn around his campaign, he might want to focus less on hiring big-name GOP consultants and more on finding some Catholic outreach staffers in Iowa.

Amy Sullivan is a contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on every Friday.