By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite a battle over birth-control policy between the White House and Roman Catholic leaders, U.S. Catholics' political views differ little from those of non-Catholic voters, according to Reuters/Ipsos poll results released on Monday.
About four in 10, or 37 percent, of Catholic voters approve of Democratic President Barack Obama's performance, and 48 percent disapprove, according to the online survey of registered voters conducted February 6-13.
The numbers are nearly identical for non-Catholic, with 37 percent approving and 50 percent disapproving, the online poll found.
Twenty-five percent of Catholic voters feel the country is headed in the right direction, and 61 percent believe it is not, the survey said, compared with 24 percent and 63 percent for non-Catholics.
Results for Catholics and non-Catholics also both show a statistical dead heat if Republican Mitt Romney were his party's nominee and the 2012 presidential election were held today, although Catholic voters favor Romney slightly over Obama.
The online poll found that 42 percent of non-Catholic registered voters would back Obama, versus 39 percent for Romney. Among Catholics, 42 percent would pick Obama, but the number was higher - 44 percent - for Romney.
"It certainly suggests that Catholics are a little more Romney-favorable than not," said Chris Jackson, research director for Ipsos Public Affairs.
Obama on Friday made health insurers responsible for providing free birth control to employees of religious groups. The move aimed to placate leaders of the Catholic church who oppose contraception and objected to the initial rule that church institutions be forced to provide such coverage.
The policy ended days of squabbling between the administration, church officials and Republicans in Congress over the rule, which had briefly seemed like it might become a campaign issue in the November presidential election.
Romney and other Republicans vying for the nomination to oppose Obama's re-election bid used the issue to contend that the White House was waging a war on religion.
The Reuters/Ipsos survey found that 42 percent of Catholics disagreed with the idea that religious hospitals or health organizations should be required to provide birth control or contraceptives.
Thirty-three percent of non-Catholics disagreed.
Jackson said the result indicated that, given the issue's sensitivity, Obama had done well to come up with a solution well before the November 6 general election.
"Getting out with a win, or at least a draw, now is a good strategy before it becomes a bigger issue," he said. "His best chances for re-election have always been the economy and focusing on the improvement in the economy."
The precision of the Reuters/Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval, a statistical measure used because the sample of likely voters is selected from pre-screened voter panels.
For the broader poll, non-Catholic registered voters had a credibility interval of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points. The interval was plus or minus 5.2 percentage points for Catholic registered voters.
For the contraception questions asked between February 8 and 13, non-Catholic responses had a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points; Catholic responses had a credibility interval of 6.7 percentage points.
The broader survey interviewed 1,899 non-Catholic registered voters and 484 Catholic registered voters. The contraception questions were asked of 1,136 non-Catholics and 287 Catholics.
(Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Philip Barbara)