It's an article of faith in U.S. politics that, when it comes to the popular vote at least, Catholics determine the winners in our presidential contests.
In fact, with the notable exception of George W. Bush eight years ago, no candidate in recent memory has entered the White House without securing a majority of the votes cast by Catholics, who now make up more than a fourth of the U.S. population.
Until Ronald Reagan came along and created a new political category -- "Reagan Democrats" -- Catholics also were a reliable constituency in the party of Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt. That had been true since the 1840s, when the first great waves of Catholic immigrants essentially were pushed into the Democrats' arms by the anti-immigrant sentiments of the Know Nothings and Whigs, most of whom ended up in the new Republican Party.
Karl Rove, Bush's strategic eminence grise, thought he'd found a way to pry Catholics, as ostensible social conservatives, out of the Democratic embrace and into a new conservative coalition using so-called wedge issues -- such as abortion, same-sex marriage and aid to parochial schools and social service agencies.
That approach isn't working for John McCain, particularly in Pennsylvania, where strategists in both parties seem to agree the Republican nominee's chances will rise or fall.
That's interesting because if there's any place in America where the traditional blue-collar, ethnic white Catholics who voted in such numbers for Reagan and Bush continue to make their electoral clout felt, it's in the Keystone State. Western Pennsylvania, where both McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, have campaigned so hard, is a citadel of family-minded, working-class, white ethnic Catholics.
In fact, nearly one-third of all Pennsylvanians are Catholics, and in recent weeks, McCain's candidacy has received a major boost from their clerical leaders. Last week, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia wrote in his archdiocesan newspaper: "The transcending issue of our day is the intentional destruction of innocent human life, as in abortion ... [and] no intrinsic evil can ever be supported in any way."
Yet Barack Obama continues to lead McCain by double figures in every reliable Pennsylvania poll. In fact, according to a recent New York Times/CBS poll, Obama holds a commanding 59% to 31% edge over McCain among Catholics nationwide. What's significant about that is that at least 50 of the country's 197 Catholic bishops recently have published articles or given interviews in which they argued that abortion, more than any other issue, ought to determine how members of their flock cast their votes. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput and St. Louis Bishop Robert Hermann have been two of the most forceful voices in this regard, but polls now put Colorado in Obama's column and have him slightly ahead in Missouri.
What we're seeing in these three swing states is the end of the Catholic vote, as conventional political strategists traditionally have expected it to behave -- in part because it's now so large it pretty much looks like the rest of America; in part because of its own internal changes. National polls have shown for some time that, although Catholics are personally opposed to abortion, they believe it ought to be legal in nearly identical percentages to the rest of America. Moreover, as a survey by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found earlier this year, only 18% of Catholics "strongly" agree with the statement: "In deciding what is morally acceptable, I look to the church teachings and statements by the pope and bishops to form my conscience."
There's also a profound demographic shift occurring in this sector. Nearly one-third of all American Catholics now are Latinos, as are more than 50% of all Catholics under 40. They have broken overwhelmingly for Obama because of his stands on the economy and immigration. (Shades of the 1840s.)
What all this suggests is that, in this and coming election cycles, we may see a new model for the Catholic vote, one whose participation more closely resembles that of Jews, 75% of whom are overwhelmingly pro-Democratic, while a devout minority, the Orthodox, tends more strongly Republican. If you break the Catholic vote down in roughly the same pattern, you get something that looks like the current national spread. According to most reliable data, slightly less than one in four Catholics now assist at weekly Mass and are more open to GOP policies, while the overwhelming majority of their co-religionists have cast their lot with the Democrats' domestic and foreign policies.
In other words, back to the future.