We had a panel discussion at Catholic University yesterday on the Catholic Vote in the 2008 election. You can see it on C-Span by clicking here.
The central question was this: Is there a "Catholic vote" anymore and, if so, what will drive it in the 2008 election cycle? The different panelists had their own opinions on this question, but the one point of consensus was that we don’t really know yet and won’t know until we get the exit polls on election night. There are a lot of shifting templates in the geography of this election, some of them tectonic like the historic tension between white, ethnic Catholics and African-Americans, and some of them ephemeral like how much Sarah Palin spent on her wardrobe.
One of the biggest questions is whether or not young people will turn out. There is convincing data to show that young Catholics, and indeed most young Americans, break disproportionately for Obama. Young evangelicals remain more firmly entrenched in the GOP column, but they are the exception not the rule. While pollsters and statisticians are understandably wary of high-end projections of youth turnout, which we have seen before but it has never quite panned out, I think this year will be different. Young people know that this year they can make history. Voting for Al Gore in 2000 would have set the country on a far different course from the one George W. Bush has taken us but no one at the time felt that voting for Gore was "taking part in history." If Obama wins, all Americans (except the racists) will have to feel good about the fact that race was no impediment to his attaining the highest office in the land. Even if you think his policies will be a disaster for the country, breaking down racial and ethnic barriers is an undeniably good thing and an undeniably American thing.
There was a great deal of discussion about the abortion issue and how it will play. After the panel, a young woman came up to ask me if I knew that Barack Obama intended to increase the number of abortions in this country. She was bristling with hostility. I said during the panel that I think one of the reason Obama has to deliver on his pledge to find common ground on abortion is that so many of us are tired of the two sides shouting at each other, and part of his political persona is that he can be a bridge builder. And, if he wins, we pro-life Democrats must keep his feet to the fire on his pledge.
The emergence of Catholic Latinos as a critical voting bloc was also a focus of much attention. They are the fastest growing demographic in the entire electorate and they are already decisive in such key swing states as Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. If the next president delivers on humane immigration reform, he will earn the loyalty of the Latino vote for his party for a generation.
Catholics this year will lean blue like the rest of the country but they remain a distinctive voting bloc, with different cultural reference points, different historical family narratives &c. For too long Democrats ignored this distinctiveness, but Obama seems to get it. It may help him get to the White House and, even more, it may help him build a governing coalition once he gets there.
Michael Sean Winters