Polls are now the best way to influence public opinion, largely because they're treated (much like the BBC) as impartial oracles of the truth by most people who read them. As readers of the excellent political thrillers of Michael Dobbs (serialised on TV with the incomparable and much-missed Ian Richardson playing the ultra-cynical politician Francis Urqhart) will know, it’s not quite that simple. Dobbs has one of his characters say (roughly) "The thing you must realise about polls is that they are not devices for measuring public opinion - they are devices for influencing it"… My guess is that political professionals use polls to float ideas, and massage them to try to create swings in opinion from nothing, or amplify small swings into bigger ones, taking advantage of humanity’s regrettable herd instinct and desire to be on the winning side.
That being said, the poll results from the Paul B. Henry Institute’s Religion and the 2008 Election: A Pre-Election Analysis are hardly encouraging.
Catholic News Agency reports that the survey divvied up the Catholic population according to traditionalists (5.3% of respondents), centrists (5.4%), modernists(4.9%), and Hispanic Catholics(6.8 %). The traditionalist category is not a measure of enthusiasm for the Latin Mass, but rather a grouping according to high levels of religious observance and doctrinal orthodoxy.
Here are the poll’s findings on social conservative issues:
Perhaps surprisingly, the survey discovered that a majority of self-described Catholic respondents clearly support pro-abortion stands, and on the issue of homosexual marriage they are evenly split.
When asked to consider the statement “abortion should be legal and solely up to the woman to decide,” 51 percent of non-Hispanic self-described Catholics agreed. Traditionalist Catholics disagreed with the statement 71 to 21 percent, centrist Catholics agreed 54 to 40 percent, and modernist Catholics agreed 80-16 percent. About 47 percent of Latino Catholics agreed with the statement, while only 35 percent disagreed.
Concerning homosexual marriage, Latino Catholics are split 42 percent in favor to 41 percent against, judging by their response to the survey statement that “gays and lesbians should be permitted to marry legally.” Non-Hispanic Catholics are also closely split, 45 percent disagreeing while 43 percent agree. About 68 percent of traditionalist Catholics disagree with the statement, while centrist Catholics are evenly split and 65 percent of modernist Catholics agree.
If accurate, the poll again demolishes the idea that America is importing social conservatives from Mexico. By way of comparison, Hispanic Protestants agreed with the pro-choice abortion statement 49-45 percent and disagreed with the homosexual marriage statement 48-42 percent.
As we know from Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Nancy Pelosi, a person’s self-description as a Catholic has little relevance to his or her stands on controversial issues.
It is quite discouraging that only 68 percent of “traditionalist” non-Hispanic Catholics could bring themselves to voice opposition to the crackpot radicalism that is same-sex marriage. While a few percentage points could be attributed to smartass respondents who realize that gays and lesbians are already allowed to contract sham marriages with members of the opposite sex, these numbers represent a significant capitulation to the trend of the moment even among the highly observant.
The figures on abortion also show a pro-life advantage only among the most observant. A politician with national ambitions can look at these results and reasonably conclude he only has to worry about attracting Hispanic, centrist and modernist Catholics.
Perhaps the poll report's only good news is that the Republican-leaning traditionalists are not overwhelmingly supportive of the Iraq war: “Traditionalist Catholics support the action by 56-36 percent, centrist Catholics oppose it by 54-34 percent, and modernist Catholics oppose it 68-29 percent. Latino Catholics oppose the Iraq action by a margin of 69-25.”
As Archbishop Chaput says, “We’ve been deeply naive about the congeniality of American culture toward Catholic belief.” I hope these survey results shake many from their naivety.