Time for next wave of election ink: So it's time to look for the elusive Catholic vote -- again

Election Day is upon us. You may have noticed what a big deal the midterms are given the extensive coverage and hype from both the networks and cable news channels over the past few weeks.

While the fight for Republicans to maintain control of Congress has been framed, of course, as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s first two years in office, there is also a religion angle — specifically a Catholic one) to examine. These elections could also serve as a litmus test for
American Catholics and whether they opt to go left or right. After all, Catholicism is the country’s single largest religious denomination, and the ultimate swing vote, although you wouldn’t know it from all the aforementioned news coverage.

Overall, the data is mixed on whether Catholics as a whole backed Trump or Clinton.

But there’s the key fact. There is no one Catholic vote. That’s a myth.

It’s that elusiveness that makes Catholics and the midterms a difficult story for news organizations to tackle. In a polarized world where loud voices on Twitter get lots of attention,
black and white issues and point-of-views reign supreme. There isn’t much room for gray.

Nonetheless, moral and religious issues like abortion, religious freedom and immigration could make the Catholic vote – even if split — an important factor in the midterms. While immigration, climate change, abortion and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings have gotten lots of attention this election cycle, the religious angle — specifically looking at Catholic candidates and voters — is what has been lacking from mainstream news coverage.

Let me stress: It isn’t that coverage has been devoid of religion. In the Trump age, evangelicals are the group news organizations like to focus on because so many of them backed the
president (see this tmatt update on that).

The Catholic vote has become even harder to pin down in recent years.

Catholics have not voted as a bloc since the 1960s when John F. Kennedy became the first, and to date the only, Catholic to win the White House. In recent decades, Catholics have been evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. The key? Look for information about how often a Catholics go to Mass.

Journalists should look at the nation’s political divisions and how they are akin to what we see in the current church. Catholics are divided among conservatives (of various kinds) and liberals (of various kinds) — which means there are a lot of people in between. As always, abortion and immigration remain hot-button issues.

The church is also divided by ethnicity. In the last presidential elections, Hispanic Catholics favored Hillary Clinton; white Catholics went for Trump.

Thus, there has often been confusion about the Catholic vote. A Pew Research study looking at the 2016 presidential election found that voters who supported Republican candidates in recent elections (such as white born-again or evangelical Christians and white Catholics), support the president.

“Catholics, like all other Americans who develop partisanship, gravitate toward the issues within their party that are consistent with the Catholic Church,” Mark Gray, the director of polling at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, told America magazine last year.

”So if you’re a Democrat and a Catholic, you may strongly emphasize Pope Francis’ statements about climate change or the preferential option for the poor. If you are a Republican and a Catholic, life issues may be the most important to you.”

The contentious Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, and how it was handled by both political parties, may ultimately be what gets Catholic voters energized. Again, Kavanaugh, part of the Supreme Court’s conservative Catholic majority, may have generated excitement with right-leaning voters (regardless of their faith) more than anti-Trump sentiments.

Journalists need to look at all the data, not polls. The last election proved that those aren’t always reliable. The data from a place such as Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate is a great place to start when it comes to Catholics in this country.

When it comes to House races spread out across the country, the Catholic vote could matter
given how the population is spread out. Pew Research, another great source of statistics and tools, has noted that Catholics are fairly evenly dispersed geographically: 27 percent now live in the South, 26 percent in the Northeast, 26 percent in the West and 21 percent in the Midwest.

Few other denominations can claim that.

On a micro level, two races to keep an eye on this election cycle are in Pennsylvania, a state that went for Trump in 2016. In doing so, he became the first Republican to take Pennsylvania since George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Which way the House ultimately goes could be a trend set by two Pennsylvania House races featuring a pro-life Catholic Republican against a pro-abortion Catholic Democrat.

The 17th Congressional District near Pittsburgh feature Republican Keith Rothfus and Democrat Conor Lamb. Both are incumbents running for the same seat due to redistricting.

The second race, in the 3rd District that covers northwestern Pennsylvania, is between incumbent Republican Mike Kelly and Democrat Ron DiNicola.

If Democrats can lure liberal Catholics to the polls — especially young and non-whites — the party could very well get that Blue Wave.

In the Senate, for example, it’s worth noting that every Democrat up for re-election in the Senate is a Catholic. Those senators include Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), Bob Casey (Pennsylvania), Bob Menendez (New Jersey), Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), Maria Cantwell (Washington), Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Tim Kaine (Virginia), who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate two years ago. Manchin is the only Democrat in the Senate who backed Kavanaugh.

There are lots of Catholic connections for journalists to probe. It’s a matter of delving through voter trends, demographic data and then connecting the dots. Obviously, ignoring such a large demographic means ignoring a major story during what has become one of the biggest midterm elections in years.

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