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My Take: The myth and reality of the Catholic vote
The author argues there is not one Catholic vote, but three discrete Catholic votes.
February 20th, 2012
11:39 AM ET

My Take: The myth and reality of the Catholic vote

Editor's Note: Stephen S. Schneck is director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America.

By Stephen S. Schneck, Special to CNN

For years, pollsters and political scientists have been stumped about Catholics.

On one hand, it’s been pretty clear that as American Catholics go, so goes the nation. George W. Bush narrowly won the Catholic vote in 2004 and won a second term. Barack Obama narrowly won the Catholic vote in 2008 and, with it, the White House.

It’s easy to see why Catholics are sometimes seen as the swing voters whose shifting political preferences swing elections.

Nevertheless, the idea of a Catholic bloc is patently ridiculous. As voters, American Catholics mirror the electorate as a whole, divided into Democrats, independents, and Republicans at about the same percentages as all Americans. And it’s hard to trace such political complexity to religious allegiance.

One explanation for why is the sheer number of Catholic voters and their now multigenerational assimilation into American society. About 35 million Catholics voted in 2008. That’s about 27% of all voters.

In the 19th century and for much of the 20th, Catholics self-consciously occupied a distinctive identity in America. Predominantly blue collar, they often lived in white ethnic neighborhoods, attended their own schools and colleges, established their own hospitals and charities, and experienced some level of discrimination.

In those years, Catholics associated overwhelmingly with the Democratic Party, which not only accommodated but promoted policies that advanced ethnic assimilation – everything from minimum wage laws to the GI Bill.

But by finally achieving that assimilation, Catholics in the last 50 years have lost much of their sense of special self-identity. For white Catholics, who are about 60% of the Catholic vote, their distinctiveness in class, education, income, and even ethnicity has grown increasingly ambiguous in America’s famous melting pot.

The melting pot has even transformed Catholics’ relationship to their church. Polling numbers released Friday by CNN about the White House contraception dust-up illustrate this: Only 11% of Catholics polled said they should always obey official church teachings on moral issues like birth control and abortion.

To put this differently, 88% of Catholics in the poll said that it’s OK for Catholics to make up their own minds about these moral issues. That represents a growing trend. In 1992 only 70% supported the “make up their own minds” argument. In 1999 it was 80%.

Today’s Catholics are picky and even suspicious about political signals from the institutional church.

Politically conservative Catholics bristle at do-gooder messaging from their bishops about climate change, immigration reform and Catholicism’s important “preferential option” for the poor. Politically liberal Catholics, meanwhile, are not much swayed by the righteous tone of church pronouncements about same-sex marriage and contraception.

And yet despite the pattern and consequences of assimilation, something Catholic is going on in politics. It’s evident when you drill down into the polling numbers. While there is not an obvious Catholic vote on the macro scale, there are three discrete "Catholic votes” that really matter in American elections.

The first of these is Latino Catholics.  Over the last three decades, Latino immigration has washed over the church in America like a flood.  From insignificant numbers 40 years ago, Latinos now constitute one-third of all American Catholics.

In the not-too-distant future, the majority of American Catholics will probably be Latinos.

Unlike the Italians, Poles, Irish and similar white ethnics, Latino Catholics have retained their distinctive identity as Catholics. Their voting behavior reflects that.

This is particularly true when considered from the perspective of the famous social teachings of the church, which emphasize social and familial solidarity, the common good, preference for the poor, tradition, and welcoming of the immigrant.

Latino American Catholics (excluding Cubans) strongly associated with the Democratic Party in 2008, with 67% of Latino Catholic voters supporting Obama. But the bloc includes swing voters, and turnout can be volatile. This vote can be critical in swing states like Colorado, Florida and New Mexico, and perhaps soon in states like Arizona and Texas.

A little deeper in the weeds are two other important groups of white Catholic voters, who might be called “intentional Catholics” and “cultural Catholics.”

An important social phenomenon for understanding intentional Catholics is what’s sometimes referred to as distillation. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last year found that one-third of those raised Catholic have left the church. Fully 10% of the American electorate is formerly Catholic.

Because of assimilation, the glue of tradition and culture that previously inclined many to adhere to the church has lost its stickiness. Leaving is easy, whether by decision or atrophy, and little shame results.

Such disaffiliation happens for liberal reasons, conservative reasons, personal reasons and no reason at all. Some who leave still feel lingering allegiance to things Catholic, but many do not, and former Catholics do not have a distinctive political identity.

But as a result of disaffiliation, many Catholics who remain with the church are “distilled.”  More and more of those who remain are those who actively choose to embrace the church and its teachings. These “intentional Catholics” are the second of the three important groups of Catholic voters.

Largely white, with impressive education levels, mostly suburban and with moderate to high income levels, such Catholics are in evidence in weekly Mass attendance and parish activities. Politically active, intentional Catholic voters lean toward the Republican Party (with some youthful swing voters) and are motivated by economic issues and increasingly by opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration.

“Cultural Catholics” make up the third important group of Catholic voters. They are a complicated mix of mostly white Americans with lower levels of Mass attendance and higher levels of ambivalence toward Church authority.

These assimilated voters have varying education and income levels, often hail from urban and suburban communities, are more female than male - often with blue-collar roots - and are not intentionally but culturally oriented toward the church.

Because of the relative size of the Catholic population in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, swing voters in this group can be pivotal in presidential elections.

Many culturally Catholic voters are at odds with both conservatives and liberals on many issues. They are more socially conservative than the majority of Americans, but many are put off by the more intense social conservatism of intentional Catholics and evangelicals.

They are more economically populist than most Americans but are uncomfortable with the libertarian zeal of the tea party.  They are alienated from the lifestyle liberalism of many progressives but remain supportive of unions and governmental programs for the middle class.

The bishops may have little role in these voters’ personal faith, but cultural Catholics look to the church for the sacraments that mark the turnings of their lives and for the traditions that connect generations. Their religious sensibility might almost be described as ethnic.

Neither Obama nor any of the Republican candidates has clinched the deal for the voters in this group. Whoever does will probably win in November.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen S. Schneck.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Politics

soundoff (1,205 Responses)
  1. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, B.A., J.D., S.P.J.

    If Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum are elected, these Latinos in Juan's church won't be unhappy in America" anymore. Mit will send you or all your friends and relatives back to Mexico so you can emigrate "legally". i believe there is about a 35 year wait to legally bring a son or brother or parent here from Mexico, so you won't be unhappy in America anymore. my guess is that "Juan" is actually a WASP guy working for one of Carl Rove's Superpacs. If there was a Republican candidate who knew where this "Mystery Church" was they would be there tomorrow mugging for the camera. But apparently the Mystery texas Church is like a "windmill that you will find...in Carl Rove's mind."

    February 20, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
  2. LA

    Truly sad when you think about it. The Religious zelots finally have the candidate they want and frankly I think the majority of this country is fed up of the "Christians", especially the Catholic church. When you consider that a hoop la they are making over the issue of "right to life" agendas while just 70 years ago the church watched 6 million people die and they not only knew but did nothing about it.... I go with what I have always believed. More people have suffered and died in the name of religious beliefs than for any other reason.

    February 20, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Tim

      "any other reason" So i suppose religion has killed more people than old age, plague, cancer and heart disease........religion has been busy, busy

      February 20, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Patrick

      @Tim
      The difference is religion is manmade.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Tim

      @Patrick
      First I would argue that "religion is manmade" is the fundamental issue in question (I do not believe that statement).

      Even if I were to concede this point to you, I would hate to rely on the vitues of man in the face of religion. Humanlity has done a wonderful job destroying itself outside religion. Mao, Stalin, Hilter, Pol Pot just to name a few individuals. But I would argue that perhaps the greatest killer is inside all of us and is greed. More subtle than most causes perhaps, but I would argue the pursuit of greed over the ages has killed and enslaved more people directly or indirectly (environment) than any other "manmade" vice.

      It would be nice to point at religion and make it the bad guy (and it certainly has it flaws), but I think it is far from the only source of misdeeds.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Tim ... Both Hitler and Stalin were raised and educated as Christians (Hitler-Catholic & Stalin-Christian Orhtodox university). It could easily be argued that religion made them the men history knows.
      History books & archeology is filled with proof of religion's man made origins, to believe otherwise is purely a personal choice.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Tim

      @ If

      "Religion is a personal choice" we can definitely agree on this point. I believe, you do not....thankfully we live (i hope) in a society with welcomes both decisions.

      Now on the issue of Hitler and Stalin......I will need a bit more to be convinced. Offhand, I would tend to argue that these are mild correlations rather than causation. Both were men and wore mustaches. Could I argue that anyone raised as a man and desiring the look of the mustache is a raving lunatic who will kill millions if ceded power? If this were the case, I would me mindful to shave extra close in the morning.

      February 20, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • brett

      Religion is man made, true Christianity is God made.

      February 20, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  3. Juan in El Paso

    A story written in desparation by the liberal media and egg head academic. Who are they trying to convince? Themselves, other members of the media, liberals... Who? I have not meet any at my church who isn't mad at Obama and eventhough we are 90% latino no one is going to vote for Obama this time around. Hope and Change has turned into Social Engineering.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Scott

      That's funny, I haven't met anyone in my parish who isn't furious at Republicans for politicizing religion while being total hypocrites. Obama will win hands down here.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • sam

      So...you feel your one church is an accurate representation of anything? Logic fail.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  4. tom

    Is the Catholic vote the same thing as the Latino vote?

    February 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  5. VinceRN

    CNN and Obama hope the Catholic vote is a myth. Time will tell, November isn't far off.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  6. TheLord

    Yes it is, most Catholics including myself support contraceptives for example. Just because a few Preists get on Fox news spewing biblethumper ideology doesn't mean a thing. Mr. Obama will have their support don't worry.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • Patrick

      >Yes it is, most Catholics including myself
      >because a few Preists get on Fox news spewing biblethumper ideology

      Do you have any idea who stupid that sounds?

      February 20, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  7. longtooth

    There is no "Catholic vote". I was raised Catholic and grew up in a blue collar city. I don't know anyone who attends mass and certainly don't know anyone who takes moral leadership from priests, cardinals, or popes. The Holy Roman Church is a dinosaur that caused its own demise by clinging to power and prestige in place of teaching the lessons of Jesus. Someone said "Politics is the last refuge of the scoundrel". The church could serve as a safe haven as well.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • VinceRN

      The fact that you don't associate with them doesn't not meant there are not many millions of Catholics who do attend church and do take moral leadership from their priests. Those are the ones the term "Catholic vote" refers to, not to lapsed Catholics, ex-Catholics, or non practicing Catholics. For those millions that do attend church regularly and do take moral leadership there is absolutely a Catholic vote, and it has long been one of the strongest Democrat voting blocs. That changing might cost Obama his job in a close election, though I think it unlikely to change.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • JoeC3

      Amen

      February 20, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  8. eman

    Bush's win wasn't attributed to the Catholic vote. It was attributed to the EVANGELIST vote. Obama's success was attributed o the INDEPENDENT vote.

    The entire premise of this article is way off base, which makes all of the authors arguments worthless.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Nare

      I think you missed this part:

      "Nevertheless, the idea of a Catholic bloc is patently ridiculous. As voters, American Catholics mirror the electorate as a whole, divided into Democrats, independents, and Republicans at about the same percentages as all Americans. And it’s hard to trace such political complexity to religious allegiance."

      February 20, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • b

      agreed. and i hope that any catholic who votes republican that their toes turn green and smell like elephant dung for four years.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  9. Rational

    A person high on drugs is far less dangerous than a person high on religion.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • sam

      A person on drugs will at least come down eventually and behave themselves for a while.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • Tim

      Oh, I love pithy quote time…….I will submit “nobody prays harder than an atheist on his/her deathbed”

      February 20, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  10. N&W 1000

    The Catholic vote IS a myth when it votes against us.

    IT is NOT a myth when it votes FOR us.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  11. jack spratis

    Yes the vast majority of Catholics believe in the separation of church and state and vote accordingly.The church has no sway over these folks just as the vast majority also practice birth control - fact !

    February 20, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • eman

      So true. Catholic's have been repressed in this country for generations. The KKK first targeted Catholics, but all you ever hear about are the crimes against blacks. When JFK ran for President, people doubted whether a Catholic could ever be elected. Of course Catholics want separation of church and state. If you ever read a history book, you would know about the Catholic/Protestant conflict in Ireland that banished entire generations to the new world, based solely upon their faith.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  12. The Bible

    "I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth".
    According to Jesus – liberal Catholics are not Catholics at all, they will be 'sput out' by Him, meaning they will not enter heaven.
    Only the real, fervent ones will.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Jim

      The Bible – if they will just leave me alone here on earth, I'll sell them an indulgence to help them get into heaven, cheap.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • jack spratis

      God sees our sin but is ready to forgive us because Jesus fully took OUR sin on Himself and paid for our sin by His death on the cross.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Beth

      Exactly where in the Bible does it say that? For that matter where does it talk about Catholics in the Bible?

      February 20, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • eman

      According to Jesus, you don't need to go to a house of worship, because God is everywhere. Gluttony is a sin, yet the Catholic church has stockpiled priceless treasures from around the world. Jesus said that it is your responsibility to feed and clothe the poor. Those treasures could feed and clothe the 3rd world several thousand times. Much like every other organized religion, they choose which teachings to adhere to, and ignore the rest.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • The Bible

      "jack spratis:
      God sees our sin but is ready to forgive us because Jesus fully took OUR sin on Himself and paid for our sin by His death on the cross."

      Only if they repent. But will they?

      February 20, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • HPNIII

      and then there is Judge not lest ye be judged. For every quote you can find there is at least one other that totally contradicts it.
      Jesus gave us two suggestions for leading a Christian life,neither of which require a church, book, priest, paster, nor minister etc. Everything else has been a creation of man, and as such we have totally screw it up.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • The Bible

      HPNIII, it is no judgment, just an observation. This is what Jesus said:
      "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth."
      Revelation 3:16

      February 20, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  13. Jim

    The First Amendment provides both freedom OF religion, and freedom FROM religion.

    I don't care what catholics believe, or what they want to do. Eat human flesh and drink human blood. I don't care. Just keep your faith out of my life and out of my government.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  14. Fair Taxes

    Who is a better person, a "christian" organization that shelters and hides pedophiles from prosecution, and declares bankruptcy to avoid paying compensation with tax exempt income, or an athiest that cares about the poor and middle class, and their access to shelter and healthcare?

    February 20, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • tom

      show me an atheist(s) who runs more charities, hospitals schools etc. Yes, fix what's broken but please give credit where credits due.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Unfortunately Tom most Atheists need to hide the fact that they don't believe in a God(s) out of fear of insane backlash from people afraid of those who don't think as they do. You and I both know most believers are not dangerously retaliatory but we also both know that there are those who are, and it only takes one to rain destruction on someone else. BTW there are plenty of Athiest volunteers and you know it too.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Fair Taxes .. I must agree with the point you're making. The biggest problem is that the "church" professes to be the moral authority and happily lays claim to standing as "leader" of their "flock" ... that's where the problem is! They are just as criminal as any other organization but they abuse the authority given them by their followers. It's not only a criminal act it's an abuse of trust and is especially psychologically damaging.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  15. Skipper

    Sadly, the distinction between Catholics and Evangelicals is steadily fading....

    February 20, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  16. Walter

    Funny, it wasn't a myth when Catholics supposedly voted for Obama in large numbers. Now that there's a chance they might not, we get articles suggesting it is a myth.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    February 20, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • Skipper

      Perhaps by the "power of wishful thinking". It is a rather sickening notion that God would grant his/her favor to those who receive the most prayer "votes".

      February 20, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Tom Paine

      So does evolution.

      February 20, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
  18. K Ols

    Non-Catholics sure think they know a lot about Catholics.
    The rate of child molestation is about the same as in the general population but, as someone said, the headlines just aren't as impactful.
    Smako, Catholics haven't kneeled for communion since about the 1960s. Churches no longer use a communion rail and the priest faces the parishioners. We also don't think confession is a license to go out and do the same sin all over again. I'd bet that most people have a problem with commiting the same sin all over again because that is just in their make up or put another way, free will is the culprit if we commit the same sins again. There isn't a person on the planet who never has a sin. It's called human weakness. Maybe you should exam "your" conscience and see if you aren't guilty of doing the same sinful thing over again and again.
    Also, I might point out in all my years of being Catholic I have never once heard a priest address politics from the pulpit. I think a lot of prostetant churches may be guilty of that but I doubt you will hear a Catholic implying you must vote one way or the other. Churches are supposedly constrained because the government can take away their tax exempt status for doing so. Maybe government should do that very thing to some of these mega churches.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Robert Collins

      "The rate of child molestation is about the same as in the general population" However the general population are not followers of Christ, thus you would expect their rate to be higher.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Fair Taxes

      The problem is not the "rate", it's that the catholic corporation sheltered and hid the perpetrators from civil justice and demeaned and threatened the victims into not pressing charges.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Will S

      Actually, if you investigate insurance statistics you will find that non-Catholic clergy are 2.5 times more likely to abuse and molest children than Catholic clergy. There just isn't a single target as large as the Catholic church.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Fair Taxes

      Will – your statistics are probably skewed by the catholic church's success in hiding abuse and threatening victims into silence. You know, the "You'll burn in hell if you tell" speech.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Guest

      My church still has a communion rail we kneel at to receive, and here in the last couple of election cycles there have been some talks about politics from the pulpit, mostly saying "Be a good Catholic and vote pro-life Republican" but not outright saying as such. I almost walked out of Mass because of the thin line between the religious and political messages being preached about.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Will S ... I'd rather have police or counselling statistics than insurance statistics when it comes to the reality of child molestation.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Will S

      Au contraire..."Fair Taxes"– your statistics are probably skewed by the protestant church's success in hiding abuse and threatening victims into silence. You know, the "You'll burn in hell if you tell" speech.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • Will S

      If you want police or counseling statistics, track them down yourself. Doing your legwork isn't my job. Personally, I believe actuaries more than social workers. You are obviously the type of person that will always want one more piece of evidence no matter how much is presented (i.e. narrow-minded). I'll be you are a Creationist to boot.

      February 20, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Will S ... Please look up the definition of narrow minded then re-read both posts (mine & yours) again. I didn't ask YOU to provide the stats I mentioned, I was simply implying that other statistics would likely be more accurate. I'm sorry if you don't like someone even mildly disagreeing with you but that's how we Atheists roll.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Will S

      Why not re-read your post yourself? The obvious implication from your phrasing is that *I* should provide this information for you. Who else are you talking to?

      As far as being narrow-minded, I think I have you pegged. Go look up the definition. You absolutely have a biased viewpoint. I provide evidence, you claim you want more. If I provide more, you will ask for even more. Then you will claim the numbers are flawed. *That's* narrow-minded.

      February 20, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  19. tstorm

    It is a total myth in America. I grew up Catholic and was sent to Catholic school. As an adult I don't know a single Catholic that follows the strict teachings of the church. They vote for who they want and do what it takes to make thier lives work. That includes contraception, divorce if necessary, and if you're gay, you're gay. American Catholics work too hard and have too many responsibliiteis to live the colonial and archaic life of the Rome catholic church.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • PCBURGH01

      Very well put. I agree as a catholic and as a man with common sense.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Lonewolf777

      100% true. I was an altar boy and still know half the Mass in Latin. Regardless, I don't know ONE Catholic woman who thinks the Church's stance on contraception doesn't belong with the era of the Spanish Inquisition.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      If a person doesn't follow the Catholic churches teaching, is that person still a Catholic or do they just call themselves a Catholic?

      February 20, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • tom

      If you don't believe in what the church is teaching you why wait around? I don't understand it... What you say is only partially true: people who don't agree with the church's teaching only think they are Catholics. I bet the priest who abused the children also think of themselves as Catholics. How sad indeed.

      February 20, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  20. ncsteve

    This article glosses over the Big One- abortion. Catholics may be ambivalent about the Church's position on contraception, immigration, and how to help the poor. But it is a CINO (Catholic In Name Only) that supports a modern Democrat. This is because the Democrat Party is in near-lockstep from one end of the country to the other on abortion rights. It is the fundamental hypocrisy of the Democrat party to champion the "rights' of convicted felons sentenced to death, while calling it "Womens' rights" regarding abortion. We can have a legitimate debate about capital punishment. However, Democrats who prattle endlessly about the primacy of science (often to the exclusion of religion), fail to embrace the unborn as singularly human, with unique DNA, and absolute innocense.

    February 20, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • Lonewolf777

      Please take your RINO and CINO and shove them where the sun don't shine. Only very Conservative Catholic women wouldn't consider an abortion. Catholic women learned long ago that any church, even theirs, that is run by men should not decide what women can do.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • JJC

      How is it "hypocrisy" to support the rights of a sentient human being but not a few cells that "may" become a human after they grow and become more complex? Carbon, water, etc, can become part of a human, but they don't deserve rights. What you fail to understand is that life is a gradient, not a yes or no question.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Beth

      Allow affordable birth control, there will be less abortions.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
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