The 2008 election could be won or lost on the Catholic vote. There are nearly 70 million Catholics in the United States, according to Mark Penn‘s estimates in “Microtrends,” and most of them reside in crucial swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and the Southwest.
More importantly, they have a track record of picking the winner. “In every presidential election since 1972 the winner of the Catholic vote has won the national popular vote, something no other religious group – Jews, evangelicals, Protestants – can boast,” Tom Schaller noted in his Salon article on Monday.
Catholics have historically sided with Democrats, but George W. Bush made significant inroads in 2000. “One of the untold stories of the  campaign is how the Bush forces worked subtly through little-publicized channels to win over strong, tradition-minded Catholics, obviously with some success,” Michael Barone wrote in a 2001 National Journal election postmortem.
Bush barely lost the Catholic vote in 2000, but four years later he took 52%. In 2006, when the issues shifted back from guns to butter, Democrats picked up 55% of the Catholic vote on their way to a national rout. In 2008, Catholics will be decisive but it’s uncertain which issues will motivate them.
To be clear, the Catholics are not as homogenous a voting bloc as some other religious groups (Jewish voters, for example, gave Gore nearly 80% of their vote in 2000) and different issues will motivate different kinds of Catholics.
Schaller suspects that abortion could be a key issue and major thorn in the side of Catholic Rudy Giuliani if wins the Republican nomination. But if terrorism is the issue of day, Rudy could redraw the whole map, wooing millions of Catholics.
Consider the Carmella Soprano vote. My colleague Howard Mortman at New Media Strategies wrote earlier in the year that she’s a suburban Catholic “security mother” who sided with Bush in 2004. “If she hasn’t been whacked by the time of the 2008 presidential primary, which Republican would Carmela back? An obvious first choice is Rudy Giuliani,” Mortman reasoned.
Schaller calculated that a Giuliani anti-terrorism platform tailored to Catholics could unlock the Northeast for Republicans:
“Catholics cast at least 31 percent of the vote in nine Northeastern states: New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Realistically, in a close election, only New Hampshire and Pennsylvania would truly be in play next fall. But both would represent GOP pickups, and Pennsylvania alone would be a crucial loss of electoral votes for Democrats.”
If the major issue “is the economy, stupid,” many Catholic voters could break a different way. Seth Gitell predicted in an October 23 column in the New York Sun that “It’s very possible that many Catholics voters will move back to the Democratic Party on economic grounds.” This could be especially true of lower middle-class Catholics voters in Rust Belt state and especially among Hispanic Catholics in the Southwest.
Gitell added that Hillary Clinton “has done well among upstate New York Catholic voters, a demographic that resembles other Rust Belt inhabitants.”
Both parties have candidates that can make a strong case in the Catholic community and both have issues that will win Catholics votes. Time will tell who is nominated and what issues prevail. But it’s certain that Catholics will be a major deciding factor in who ultimately wins the White House.
Catholic Adherents as a Percentage of Total Population