A new national survey of likely voters shows a sharp contrast among Catholics, the nation's largest religious group and one with significant membership in swing states such as Florida and Ohio, when it comes to choosing between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
The American Values Survey, released Monday by the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute, found that overall, likely Catholic voters are divided between the two candidates -- with 49 percent favoring Obama and 47 percent favoring Romney -- but differ greatly when broken down by race and religiosity.
A slight majority of white Catholics (54 percent) said they preferred Romney, while a significant majority of Hispanic Catholics (70 percent) said they favor Obama. Among Catholic voters who attend church at least weekly, six out of 10 said they supported Romney, while among those who attend church once a month or less, six out of 10 said they supported Obama.
There are about 77 million Catholics in the U.S. About 35 million voted four years ago, making up 27 percent of the popular vote. Obama won 54 percent of Catholic votes that year.
The winner of the majority of Catholics' votes has won the popular vote in presidential races for the past 40 years, but the study's authors emphasized that the faith group is anything but unified in its political views.
“The survey confirms that there is no such thing as 'the Catholic vote,'" said Robert P. Jones, PRRI CEO and co-author of the report. "There are a number of critical divisions among Catholics, including an important divide between 'social justice' and 'right to life' Catholics."
Obama, who is pro-choice, has been strongly criticized by Catholic bishops for his health care law's requirement that most religious institutions, including hospitals and schools, provide employees with birth control with no co-pay as part of insurance plans. Earlier this year, the Obama administration revised the rules to put the burden of paying for contraception coverage solely on insurance companies, but many Catholic institutions have protested because they are self-insured.
Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, has faced the same criticism from conservative Catholics, who have also criticized his and Obama's support of same-sex marriage rights.
Romney, who called himself pro-choice in previous campaigns but more recently identifies as pro-life, has said he believes that the Obama's contraception mandate violates religious freedom. His Catholic running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), has been criticized by bishops for his controversial budget plan that would cut government programs that aid the poor.
At least 30 lawsuits have been filed by Catholic and evangelical hospitals, universities, businesses and dioceses against the Obama administration's contraception mandate on the grounds of violations of religious freedom. The survey found that nearly 60 percent of Americans said that "religious liberty is being threatened in America today," including almost 80 percent of white evangelicals and nearly 60 percent of white Catholics.
But specifically on the contraception mandate, 56 percent of those surveyed said religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should be required to provide employees with health care plans that cover contraception or birth control at no cost. That included majorities of white Protestants (54 percent) and the overall Catholic population. In contrast, majorities of white evangelicals (56 percent) and white Catholics (51 percent) said the opposite.
On the church's role in public policy, the survey found that 60 percent of Catholics believe it "should focus more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor, even if it means focusing less on issues like abortion and the right to life," while 31 percent said the opposite. Sixty percent of "social justice" Catholics support Obama, the survey found, while 67 percent of "right to life" Catholics support Romney.
"Even among Catholics who attend church once a week or more, a group that is often considered more socially conservative, a majority believe the Catholic Church should emphasize issues related to justice and our obligations to the poor," said E.J. Dionne, Jr., Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a co-author of the report.
The survey results were based on 3,003 bilingual telephone interviews of adults in the U.S. conducted between Sept. 13 and Sept. 30.
Click through the slideshow to see most and least Catholic states in the United States: