Published for www.washingtonpost.com, May 21, 2012

In a blowout presidential election, a few large issues dominate. In a tight election, a range of smaller concerns — important to strategic constituencies in battleground states — can end up being crucial.

President Obama may have hoped for a decisive reelection victory, styled on Ronald Reagan’s in 1984. At best, he will return to the White House in the manner of George W. Bush in 2004 — after a scrambling fight across the Electoral College map. In this election, Americans are overwhelmingly focused on the economy, with cultural issues lagging in priority. But it does not follow that cultural debates are electorally unimportant. For Obama, they could matter among the wrong groups in the wrong places.

Consider the Catholic vote. In the aggregate, the category is not particularly coherent. Hispanic Catholics are more Democratic in orientation than white Catholics are. Very religious Catholics are more Republican than their less observant brethren are. A shared faith does not always mean shared political behavior. The term “Protestant” applies to African American voters and white evangelicals, to Episcopalians and Southern Baptists. Catholicism, while more institutionally united than Protestantism, has at least as much cultural, theological and political diversity.

But this does not mean a subset of Catholicism can’t be electorally important. White, non-Hispanic Catholic voters could matter greatly in some tight state contests. And Obama has done his best to alienate them.

The main offense has been the Health and Human Services Department’s mandate for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs under Obamacare — a regulation that turns Catholic hospitals, universities and charities into instruments of a federal policy they find offensive. Between early March and mid-April — soon after the mandate battle was joined — the Pew Research Center found that Obama’s support among all Catholics fell from 53 percent to 45 percent. Among white Catholics, it dropped from 45 percent to 37 percent. These numbers have remained depressed. Obama won 54 percent of Catholic voters in 2008. A recent Gallup survey found Obama’s Catholic support at 46 percent.

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