Jim Dwyer in the New York Times last week noted:
Catholics, who make up about a quarter of the registered voters in the country, have backed the winner of the national popular vote for at least the last nine presidential elections, going back to 1972….No other large group has switched sides so often, or been so consistently aligned with the winners.
Although it appears that the Democratic primary is past the point that Catholic swing voters will make a crucial difference in the nomination struggle, the potential for a photo-finish in the November general election means that whether Catholic voters break to McCain or Clinton/Obama may well be crucial. And the answer is not obvious at all: Will Catholics vote Republican in keeping with pro-life leanings? Or vote Democrat in keeping with their leadership’s anti-war statements and support for direct poverty-reduction strategies? Though Latinos make up a large and growing sector of American Catholics, they are not united — and vote less often than non-Latinos. Will they mobilize to punish McCain for recent Republican anti-immigrant venom, despite his own more moderate stance? And if Obama is the Democratic candidate, will Latino Catholics in the end support a candidate labelled African American, despite periodic tensions between those sectors at the grassroots? Lastly, will many Catholic bishops weigh in, explicitly or implicitly, on the candidates — and if so, will American Catholics listen?
Given the disastrous handling of presidential power in the last 8 years, we may all be forgiven a little surprise that this could be a close election. But that looks increasingly likely. If so, keep your eye on this vital swing constituency: American Catholics may hold the key to the next four years.