Charles Dharapak, ASSOCIATED PRESS
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama stand with Cardinal Timothy Dolan as they bow their heads in prayer as they attend the 67th annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, a charity gala organized by the Archdiocese of New York, Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York.

SALT LAKE CITY — America is sharply divided along multiple fault lines, but one of the sharpest, according to Tuesday’s exit polls, is religion. Polls showed that Mitt Romney won 59 percent of the votes of the 42 percent of people that attend church weekly. But Barack Obama won 56 percent of those who attend only rarely and 63 percent of those who never attend church.

Rather than seeking to smooth over this gap, the Obama camp decided during the early stages of this election cycle to magnify it to its advantage, according to Brookings Institution Fellow Bill Galston.

The Obama team strategically picked a fight with the Catholic Church last spring, Galston said, when it chose to draw a hardline on the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

“They made a decision way back in December 2011 that the only way to save the Obama presidency was to go all out to mobilize the core elements of the 2008 coalition,” Galston said.

When the Catholic hierarchy rose to the bait and fought aggressively against the requirement that Catholic institutions provide contraceptives with their health care, Galston said, the Obama camp did not “just stumble into that.”

The Catholic vote is one of two key voting blocks that were destined to play a central role in the 2012 election. The other was the white evangelical vote, a core Republican block that Romney had a delicate and doubtful relationship with due to his Mormon faith and his waffling on social issues over time.

“Catholics are swing voters that neither party can take for granted,” Galston said. “It is very rare for one party to get more than 55 percent of the Catholic vote.” Two keys heading into the election centered around which way Catholics would tilt and whether evangelicals would turn out in large enough numbers to vote for a man few of them wanted to nominate.

And, as Galston observes, all this was set against Obama’s gamble that he could mobilize his base to overcome Catholic pushback. By lighting a fiercely partisan fire, would the Democrats be able to turn out their base in sufficient numbers?

The answer turned out to be yes.

And in answering that question, America got a glimpse at the demographic challenges that now face the Republican party, which now finds itself squeezed on all sides — trying to lay claim to an ever-shrinking base of white, married, religious voters.

Risking backlash

A key policy adviser in the Clinton White House, Galston speaks wistfully of his former boss, who took a more centrist path to re-election and governance, winning huge swaths of red territory in two elections, and he sees difficulties in governing and healing a country that is now sharply divided.

“I know for a fact that the Obama people were warned in advance. They were under no illusions about what the reaction of the Catholic Church and the Catholic community would be,” he said. “It wasn’t something they sought, but it was something they were willing to accept as part of a package, whose upside they judged to be greater than the downside.”

And so the Obama White House drove hard at the Catholic Church, refusing to budge, infuriating bishops and even drawing the ire of a number of liberal Catholics. “Even moderate and liberal Catholics thought the administration was pushing the church around,” Galston said.

But in the same motion, Obama pivoted to the “war-on-women” theme — casting a dispute over who pays for contraceptives as an effort by old, conservative men to control women’s bodies.

The upshot: the Obama camp was willing to cede the GOP a greater share of the Catholic vote in order to bolster its base, particularly its core constituency of unmarried women.

Catholics and Protestants

If exit polls in the key swing state of Virginia are right, the white evangelical vote dipped from 2008 (28 percent of electorate) to 2012 (22 percent). This is somewhat surprising, since McCain was running a losing race and GOP turnout was depressed.

Romney did slightly increase his share of that vote. McCain only got 79 percent, which Romney bumped to 83 percent. The slight dip in the turnout, combined with bump in share, suggests that some evangelicals may have stayed home, despite the close race.

With Catholic voters, it appears that Obama did suffer only slightly for his spat with the church. In the key swing state of Ohio, Romney won Catholics by nine points, where McCain had only won them by five. Catholics comprised 25 percent of the vote in Ohio.

Marriage gaps

Obama's gamble appears to have paid off, as Democrats managed to remobilize much of their base from the 2008 election. Exit polls showed Democrats outnumbering Republicans 38 to 32 percent.

Prior to this year pollsters had not used marital status in exit polls. But with Obama banking his strategy on mobilizing unmarried women, and Romney scrambling to close the gender gap, this new question produced interesting results.

Married women comprised 29 percent of the electorate, and tilted narrowly to Romney by 2 points. Non-married women were a smaller 23 percent, but an overwhelming 66 percent of them went to Obama.

The only way Romney could win, said Joel Kotkin, a demography expert at Chapman University in Southern California, would be “the revenge of 'Ozzie and Harriet.'”

“What you have is a contest between a married American and a single or unmarried America,” Kotkin said. “It’s become a great divide in American politics.”

Kotkin has his eye on the “large-and-growing population of people who simply do not have children. They are going to be a very powerful political force in the next 20 years.”

Too dependent

And yet, Kotkin acknowledges the GOP does not have a lock on married people, surrendering huge chunks of ethnic voters with families, particularly Latinos.

“They don’t call it the 'stupid party' for nothing,” Kotkin said, noting that in the primary Romney was “forced to take a position on immigration that does not fly very well in the Hispanic community.”

Accordingly, the GOP weakness in the ethnic vote has undermined its claim to a larger share of the marriage vote, leaving them squeezed in the middle.

“The Republican party has lost the ability to communicate — not just with Hispanics, but also with gays and young people,” Kotkin said. “And the question now is whether they have to be so dependent on white mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers.”