By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO, Nov 8 (Reuters) - Post-election polling shows U.S. Roman Catholics were as likely to favor President Barack Obama as the general population in 2012, continuing the Catholic record as the bellwether of the popular vote.
Catholics - the country's largest religious group with one-quarter of the population - have supported the winner of the popular vote in every election since 1972.
Reuters/Ipsos exit polling found that 51 percent of Catholics favored President Barack Obama, compared with 48 percent for Republican contender Mitt Romney. A report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life had a similar finding, with 50 percent of Catholics for Obama and 48 percent for Romney, the same as the popular vote in the general population.
Hispanic Catholics were far more likely to favor Obama - by 76 percent to 23 percent - than white Catholics, who favored Romney by 56 percent to 43 percent, according to the Reuters poll. Black Protestants favored Obama by 97 percent to 3 percent, while white Protestants favored Romney by 69 percent compared to 29 percent for Obama.
"When you talk about Catholics, there are really two Catholic votes, the white vote and the Hispanic vote, which look starkly different," said Robert Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute. He said exit polls found that overall, voters were focused mainly on economic issues.
This election year saw strong advocacy on the conservative side of some issues by Catholic bishops, which caused discomfort for liberal Catholics. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops protested the Obama administration's health care mandate which requires Catholic hospitals and colleges to carry insurance that provides free contraception as a violation of religious liberty.
Church leaders also protested against same-sex marriage, which was on the ballot in four states. Some individual bishops took exceptionally strong positions, with Springfield, Illinois Bishop Thomas Paprocki warning his flock that if they voted for someone who promotes abortion their souls would be in jeopardy.
The bishops' stands did not seem to have much influence on the vote, said Jones. Catholic attitudes on the healthcare mandate were unchanged in March and September polls, despite advocacy by church leaders.
"If the (Republican Party) has some reflecting to do about its inability to reach an increasingly multicultural country, Catholic leaders could benefit from similar soul searching when it comes to their own diverse flock," said John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a liberal advocacy group.
Some Catholic bishops and nuns also protested the budget plan of Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a Catholic, because of cuts to anti-poverty programs.
Catholic support for Obama was stronger in 2008, with 54 percent going for the Democrat compared with 45 percent for Republican contender John McCain, Pew reported. But this also reflected the population at large.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote in an email that the 2012 election touched on "many issues of concern," not just abortion and same-sex marriage but also physician-assisted suicide, treatment of immigrants, and society's obligation to the poor.
"Sometimes the majority of the electorate agree with the church, sometimes not," Walsh said.
Conservative Catholic writer George Weigel said that there is no such thing as the "Catholic vote." He wrote in an e-mail that church-going Catholics went for Romney, while Catholics who do not go to church or go infrequently went with Obama.
"The same is true for white Protestants, and this entire pattern has been true for the last several presidential election cycles," Weigel said.
The Pew survey found that among those voters who attend services once a week or more, 59 percent went for Romney, while 39 percent went with Obama. Among those who never attend church, six in ten went for Obama.
Jews favored Obama by 69 percent to 30 percent, according to the Pew poll, while 78 percent of Mormons favored Romney, the first Mormon presidential candidate. (Reporting By Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune and David Brunnstrom)