Does religion matter in the Brown-Warren race?

This article originally appeared on WHEN THE DEBATE over the Blunt Amendment was underway, I received a number of calls from reporters looking for any insight on how the Massachusetts Senate race might be breaking by religion. Until the Blunt Amendment controversy, we had not been collecting religious affiliation in our demographic information, and neither were the other pollsters who had worked in Massachusetts and whose data we could readily access. Until the issue arose, nobody was thinking of religion as an important demographic in this election.

To explore this question further, we included a religion question in our quarterly poll, which was conducted April 25-28. Slightly less than half (44 percent) of Massachusetts voters identify as Catholic, a quarter identify as another Christian denomination, and 20 percent listed none, atheist, or agnostic, according to our survey, which had similar results to a 2008 Trinity College study in this regard. For comparison, 27 percent of nationwide voters in the 2008 presidential election were Catholic, according to exit polls.The Blunt Amendment, for those who have already tossed it into their “issue-of-the-week” dustbin, would have allowed religious groups and employers with moral objections to opt out of coverage requirements when providing insurance for their employees. The conversation surrounding the issue pegged it as either a women’s issue, a religion issue, or a combination of both. Pundits hurried to point out how Sen. Scott Brown’s support of the amendment was either political genius, locking up votes from Catholics concerned about the impacts on religious institutions, or political suicide, abandoning the votes of women concerned about losing funding for birth control.

Brown (46 percent) has a seven-point edge among Catholic voters over Democrat Elizabeth Warren (39 percent), the two candidates are tied among other Christian voters, and Warren holds a large lead among those who say “none, atheist, or agnostic.” This may appear to be evidence of a slight conservative bent among the Catholic voting bloc, though the reality is far more nuanced.

The Catholic vote is really several smaller (and very different) pieces. Thinking of the Catholic vote as one bloc masks important differences, particularly between Hispanic Catholics and non-Hispanic white Catholics. In Massachusetts, 81 percent of Catholic voters are non-Hispanic white, and 19 percent are some other group.

Brown holds a much larger lead among non-Hispanic white Catholics, at 51 to 34, than among Catholics as a whole. While we do not have enough Hispanic Catholic voters to report a specific horserace figure, those we do have are tilted to Warren by an even larger margin. Combine these two dynamics, and we see the somewhat mundane looking seven-point lead for Brown among all Catholic voters. This same phenomenon was recentlyreported by Gallup for the presidential election, with Hispanic Catholics breaking for President Obama by a 50 point margin, while Republican Mitt Romney wins white Catholics by 17.

All of this points to the fact that winning the “Catholic vote” will be a challenging task in future elections in Massachusetts. The Catholic vote and the Irish vote are not one and the same in the Bay State. While white Catholics will continue to be the majority for many years to come, the Latino population is growing rapidly, and will play an increasingly significant role in the so-called “Catholic vote.”

Finally, on the impact of the Blunt Amendment, our poll results suggest that it is both a religious and a women’s issue. Brown’s overall success with Catholic voters suggests that his positions are in line with what many are looking for. However, his lower level of support among Catholic women, where he is tied with Warren, shows the danger of seeing the Catholic vote as monolithic.