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The policy risks alienating some voters, but Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said they were unlikely to support Obama in the first place.
“The voters who oppose this policy tend to be partisan Republicans,” Garin said. At the same time, Garin noted that the policy could create goodwill among younger women, who are most likely to vote based on birth control and abortion issues.
Birth control proponents say studies show Catholic women use contraceptives at the same rate as the general female population. The Guttmacher Institute estimated that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used contraception. A 2010 Planned Parenthood survey found that 77 percent of Catholic women said they support covering birth control with no co-pay.
Birth control is less contentious than abortion, but even abortion is becoming less of a galvanizing electoral issue, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Its research on the 2008 elections found that abortion came second to last on a long list of issues concerning voters. Only 13 percent of voters believed abortion should never be permitted, and they are the voters that Obama is unlikely to reach regardless of his policy on birth control access.
Catholic voters are fairly evenly split between the parties. Obama received a 54 percent majority of the Catholic vote four years ago while supporting abortion rights.
Opponents of the policy, including Republican presidential candidates, are making this a battle over religious freedom. Erica Payne of the liberal Agenda Project said the administration risks losing control of the narrative, but she warned that a change in course could hurt Obama’s re-election.
“If the administration walks back on this, they are going to have a problem with their women voters in the fall,” Payne said.
Matt Smith, president of Catholic Advocate, said his group of 100,000 active members is pressuring Congress to act against the policy.
“The larger issue is the federal government coming in and telling institutions to violate their religious beliefs,” Smith said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which works on religious freedom issues, dismissed that argument.
“Religious freedom doesn’t give one group the right to impose their beliefs on another,” said Sarah Lipton-Lubet, a lawyer who works on ACLU’s policy agenda.
Some conservative lawmakers hope to override the administration. GOP Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) have introduced bills and have dozens of fellow Republicans as co-sponsors. Last week, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin became the first Democrat to publicly criticize the administration’s policy.
Even if the bills don’t pass, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said pressure from Congress and the public may be enough to push the administration into changing the policy.
Sen. Mike Johanns questioned the political implication of the mandate. The Nebraska Republican said Obama could damage his relations with Catholic voters in independent states.
“He’s picked this fight on conscience issues,” Johanns said.
“I am guessing that scores well with a base like he has, kind of re-establishes his credentials. … The downside of that is that he has really fired up the other side, too.”
Steven Dennis T. and Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.