In every reasonably competitive election, there’s a natural tendency to choose some one category of voters as crucial. That’s occasionally true, when most of the electorate’s tendencies to vote or support one candidate or the other is pretty much static, while one category of voters is very unstable and breaks in one direction late in the campaign cycle.
But by and large, a vote’s a vote, and focusing on who “wins” one voter category tends to ignore that fact.
It’s with that fundamental objection in mind that I read Chris Cillizza’s post today on white Catholics as the most reliable “bellwether” voters in every presidential election:
Looking for a bellwether group to focus on in the final week of the presidential race?
Look no further than white Catholics, who have gone for the winner in every single presidential election for which exit polling exists. That means that since 1972, the candidate for whom the majority of white Catholics cast their votes has — like clockwork — claimed the presidency. For the non-math majors out there, that’s EIGHT straight elections.
But if you examine the exact numbers (which Chris usefully supplies), it quickly becomes obvious that white non-Hispanic Catholics have in recent years leaned Republican by a margin well outside the national margins of the winner. In the very close elections of 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush won white Catholics by 7 percent and 13 percent, respectively. But white Catholics have been steadily declining as a percentage of the electorate, from about one-quarter in the 1990s to one-fifth in 2004.
With that background, Chris’ notes about 2008 polling of white Catholics come across a bit differently:
For months, the Washington Post/ABC News poll, has shown John McCain holding a wide lead over Barack Obama among this key swing group, which in the past eight elections has comprised between 20 and 25 percent of the electorate as a whole. Back in mid-June, McCain was at 60 percent, with 34 percent for Obama — a margin that fluctuated somewhat as the summer wore on but by the end of the Republican National Convention had returned to a 19-point McCain edge.
And yet, since the Post/ABC began its daily tracking poll (interviews are conducted each night with the results combined into a three-day rolling average) on Oct. 19, Obama has been making steady gains on McCain among white Catholics.
On the 19th, McCain led 54 percent to 41 percent. By Oct. 24, that lead has shrunk to 51 percent to 46 percent. And then, in the tracks released on Monday night and Tuesday night, for the first time Obama actually moved ahead — taking 48 percent of the white Catholic vote to McCain’s 47 percent in each track.
Given his performance among African-Americans, Hispanics, and white mainline Protestants–not to mention the rapidly growing categories of non-Christians and secularists–Obama doesn’t need to “win” white Catholics to win the election. It’s just not a reliable bellwether anymore.