Santorum and the mythical "women's vote"

Anyone who has followed American politics since, oh, roughly 1973, knows that one of most consistent patterns, election after election, is this: The more people attend worship services, the more likely they are to vote for candidates who are moral and cultural conservatives. This is a clear pattern among white voters and if you are looking for conservative voters among African-American and Latino voters, you are most likely to find them -- as a vocal minority -- in their churches. This isn't a "God gap."

It's a "pew gap," it's a gap of religious participation, not professed belief. You move the "pew gap" even one or two percentage points and it can make a big difference in key Midwestern states. Ask Barack Obama about that.

At this point, it's pretty clear that the cracks in the mythical "Catholic vote" are also linked to the "pew cap." The more Catholics -- especially white Catholics -- go to Mass, the more likely they are to vote for culturally conservative candidates. In parts of the country, this is not a clear GOP vs. Democrat issue, although the health-care wars cleared out several key traditional Catholic Democrats.

Whenever you read a story about the "Catholic vote," it pays to read to the end and see if the pollsters included a question about Mass attendance. It's amazing how few pollsters have spotted the need for that question. I, for one, would like to see at least one poll that dared to ask Catholics how often they go to confession.

Meanwhile, note this interesting passage in a National Catholic Register story about the contests between conservative Catholic Rick Santorum and moderate Mormon Mitt Romney, who keeps winning the mythical "Catholic vote." In these matters, it is always wise to listen to John Green.

According to John Green, political science director at the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, there are several theories about why Santorum has appealed more to evangelicals than to his fellow Catholics, though no polling has asked the right questions to prove any of them. “They could all be true,” he said.

One explanation is that evangelicals are generally more conservative on social issues than most Catholics, as is Santorum himself. The former Pennsylvania senator may well be outpolling Romney among a minority of Catholics who are traditional in their moral theology, while Romney is doing better with more secularized Catholics or those who are Republican because of their economic rather than their social views.

It is highly likely that these "pew gap" issues are lurking between the lines of that New York Times story about the fact that -- you can sense the shock in this one -- the Santorum campaign is staying alive because he is winning the votes of so many Republican women.

What, pray tell, is that all about? Here's the key summary material:

There is no mistaking the bond that Mr. Santorum has with conservative women -- particularly married women -- a group that has formed a core of his support since the primaries began in January. He has handily carried the votes of women in primaries that he has won, including those in Mississippi and Alabama. And where he has lost, in Arizona, South Carolina and Illinois, he has enjoyed a higher level of support among women than men.

Even as it becomes increasingly clear that Mr. Santorum, who is lagging behind Mitt Romney in both the delegate and money race, will probably remain the runner-up and not the nominee, women who support him say they still will have sent a message about values, and console themselves with the fact that the candidate, who is 53, is young enough to run in 2016. ...

The Web site ricksantorum.com attracts more women than men, 60 percent of its visitors, a larger share than for the Web sites of other candidates, according to Nielsen ratings that were released last week. Among other things, there may be an empathy factor at work: A New York Times/CBS News poll taken this month found that 73 percent of Republican female voters said Mr. Santorum understood the needs and problems of people like them, compared with 52 percent who said the same about Mr. Romney.

But wait a minute: It would be hard to argue that the Romney clan isn't a glowing picture of traditional family values. Right? Surely it's too simplistic to say that the Santorum edge in this department is the result of a "marriage gap" or a "family gap."

So what is happening? Beats me. It has to be a combination of factors and pollsters and journalists should be probing away with new questions.

But this is clear: There is no one "women's vote," just as there is no one "Catholic vote." Frankly, I think that pollsters are going to have to probe to see how gender interacts with issues linked to (a) worship attendance, (b) marriage/divorce and (c) family size. Wanna bet that all of this is also related (paging the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway) to those women who do not exist in the mainstream-media coverage of the Health and Human Services rules?

Something is going on out there and the Times team was right to point it out. Now it's time for a follow-up story that digs deeper, searching for the cracks inside the mythical women's vote. Hint: Ask the pews question.

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