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The Deacon's Bench

I’m referring, of course, to swing voters.

Much has been made of how Catholics are voting this year — and now Tim Rutten has offered some intriguing secular analysis in the Los Angeles Times:

Today, one in four Americans is a Roman Catholic. What makes all this particularly significant in this political year is that exit polls across the country show that Catholics are casting 25% of all the primary votes — mirroring, in other words, their percentage of the general population.

The importance of that turnout is amplified by the fact that Catholics now constitute the only true “swing vote” among discrete electoral groups followed by pollsters and social scientists. Though they no longer march in quite so precise a lock step, evangelicals still tend overwhelmingly to vote for the GOP candidate. African Americans and Latinos remain reliably Democratic, as do nine out of 10 Jews.

In the mechanism of American politics, Catholics are the pendulum — and they consistently swing toward the winner. In fact, Catholics have gone for the winner of the popular vote in nine consecutive presidential elections, which means that, since 1972, they’ve supported five Republican candidates and four Democratic ones.

Through Super Tuesday, Clinton appeared to have a 2-to-1 lock on the Catholic bloc. After Super Tuesday, the Catholic pendulum — like the campaign’s momentum — swung decisively toward Obama. The most recent polls say Catholic sympathies are too close to call in Texas and Ohio.

All this is likely to matter well after the Democratic convention because there’s every indication that the Catholic pendulum is likely to swing away from the Republicans in November. George W. Bush lost Catholics when he ran against Al Gore, but narrowly carried them against John Kerry, mainly on the strength of Karl Rove’s and Deal Hudson’s adroit use of the abortion and same-sex marriage issues in major Midwestern and mid-Atlantic states. (Hudson was then the White House’s liaison to conservative Catholics.) The conventional wisdom following that election was that Catholics had begun to split along the same lines as other Americans, with those who went to Mass weekly voting Republican, the same way Protestants who regularly attend services already do. In the 2006 midterms, however, Catholics — particularly in the industrialized Midwest — swung away from the GOP and gave the Democrats a 10-point margin.

Why?

Unlike evangelicals, Catholics have a long tradition of theologically nuanced social thought on which to draw: the church’s so-called social gospel. The Catholic bishops, for example, have been demanding national health insurance longer than Clinton has been alive, and the term “living wage” was introduced into the American conversation by Catholic commentators. Similarly, the church’s support for unions and opposition to restrictive immigration policies are well-articulated. More recently, both the Vatican and the American bishops have opposed capital punishment and preemptive warfare.

Now, the typical Catholic probably doesn’t know an encyclical from an insecticide, but this sort of social thinking and preoccupation with social solidarity and a “preferential option for the poor” are woven into the fabric of even casual parish life. It’s this background that has tended to make Catholics swing voters: uncomfortable with the sort of litmus-test left that once kept Pennsylvania’s pro-life Democratic governor, Bob Casey, from speaking at a national convention, as well as the talk-show right that assumes opposition to abortion means approving the war in Iraq.

For more, visit the LA Times link.

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