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Santorum’s faith isn’t driving vote of Catholics

Rick Santorum (right), stood with Hawkeye Industries owner Bryan Hawkins in Tupelo, Miss., on Wednesday.

Alex Gilbert/AP

Rick Santorum (right), stood with Hawkeye Industries owner Bryan Hawkins in Tupelo, Miss., on Wednesday.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is a proud traditional Catholic. But so far that is not helping him with Catholic voters.

Santorum has not had a significant victory among Catholic voters in any of the 10 states in which exit polls have been taken, nor has Newt Gingrich, who is also Catholic. While Santorum outpolled Mitt Romney among born-again or evangelical voters, Romney does better among Catholics, evidence that Catholics are not rallying around Santorum’s faith-based opposition to abortion and birth control.

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Catholics, analysts say, are making their choices much like the Republican electorate at large - focusing on economic issues and electability. In several cases, Santorum’s support among Catholics was significantly lower than it is among the general population.

Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life who analyzed the exit polls, said that Romney clearly won the Catholic vote in five states, and that the Catholic vote was divided in another four. In Arizona, it is unclear if there were enough Catholic voters for Romney’s margin of victory among them to be statistically significant.

“It’s not so much that Santorum is consistently doing worse among Catholics than he is among the electorate as a whole,’’ Smith said. “It’s more that he has not won the Catholic vote in any state so far, whereas Romney has done that in half the states.’’

Political observers say Catholics, unlike the Mormon voters who have supported Romney or the evangelical voters who have supported Santorum, tend not to vote as one bloc. While Santorum’s strong views on prohibiting abortion and gay marriage and his personal opposition to contraception are in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church, many Catholics are less traditional and do not vote based on those issues.

“Rick Santorum is a very traditional Catholic,’’ said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, who specializes in religion in politics. “Although Catholics who vote in Republican primaries tend to be conservative, not all of them are as traditional or as conservative as Santorum.’’

Former ambassador to the Vatican and Boston mayor Raymond Flynn, who has endorsed Romney, said in an e-mail: “Catholic voters are not monolithic. Most Catholics love God, are compassionate, faithful citizens, patriotic, and, like me, are committed to human rights and equal justice for all people. Catholics, like most Americans, will vote for the person who they believe will create jobs and strengthen our economy.’’

Some Catholics may have been turned off by Santorum’s comments that he “almost threw up’’ after reading Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on the separation of church and state.

“Attacking a Catholic icon’’ is not a good way for Santorum “to endear himself with those Catholic voters for whom identity actually does matter,’’ said Mark J. Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University.

In Ohio, where Catholics make up one-third of the electorate, Romney beat Santorum 38 percent to 37 percent overall. But Romney won 44 percent of the Catholic vote, while Santorum got just 31 percent. In Georgia, where Gingrich won the popular vote by a large margin, Gingrich and Romney split the Catholic vote, with Romney slightly ahead. In Tennessee, where Santorum won by 9 percentage points, exit polls showed the former Pennsylvania senator leading the Catholic vote by 1 percentage point, within the margin of error.

Green said surveys have shown that Catholics who attend Mass are more likely to support Santorum than those who don’t. But only 45 percent of Catholics regularly attend Mass, according to a 2009 Gallup survey. Other surveys have found that the overwhelming majority of Catholic women have at some point used techniques other than the rhythm method for birth control and disagree with their church’s opposition to artificial contraception.

Matthew J. Streb, a political scientist at Northern Illinois University who has studied the so-called Catholic vote, said he was struck by Santorum’s poor performance with members of his own church.

“You could make the argument that it was Catholic voters in Ohio who allowed Mitt Romney to have the small margin of victory that he did,’’ Streb said.

But Streb said he was reluctant to draw conclusions based on the exit polls, because many voters identity themselves as Catholic but, unlike Santorum, do not regularly attend Mass or strictly follow church teachings.

C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, said there is no Catholic bloc today.

Doyle said that many older Catholics identify with the Democratic Party, and that nonpracticing Catholics tend to be socially liberal. He said Santorum appeals to some Catholics who oppose abortion rights. But Gingrich appeals to the same group, and Romney has been endorsed by prominent Catholics, including Flynn and four other former US ambassadors to the Vatican.

Even religious Catholics will not necessarily rally behind Santorum.

Gerald D’Avolio, who was executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference when Romney was governor of Massachusetts, said that he believes both Santorum and Romney oppose abortion rights but that Romney has a better chance of winning the general election.

Santorum is “very strong on the moral issues, and I agree with that,’’ D’Avolio said. “But you have to be practical and look at who’s the candidate who will win and carry my values into the White House.’’

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, an abortion rights group, said Catholic voters’ priorities are similar to those of other Americans: a focus on economic, not social, issues.

“Catholic voters show little interest in values issues to help them decide who should be the next president,’’ O’Brien said. “Catholic voters want the president to focus on moving the economy, keeping the country safe from terrorism.’’

O’Brien said while Santorum’s socially conservative views may reflect Catholic leadership, they do not necessarily reflect those of Catholics in general.

“Catholic voters, when it comes to voting day, don’t walk in lockstep with bishops,’’ O’Brien said.

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Shira Schoenberg can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com.
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