This year's Al Smith Dinner the annual gala that raises funds for the Archdiocese of New York and has become an essential social ticket for the city's political and media class will be remembered as a rare cease-fire moment in the heated 2008 presidential campaign. Exchanging rolled-up shirt sleeves for white ties, John McCain and Barack Obama cracked each other up on topics that usually result in outraged press statements when raised on the campaign trail. "I got my name, Barack, from my father," deadpanned Obama, "and I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn't think I'd ever run for President."
What has gone largely unnoticed, however, is that the evening marked just the second time in 20 years that both presidential candidates had been invited to attend the gathering of Catholic elites. The event itself is a strictly nonpartisan affair. However, the question of whether the Archdiocese extends an invitation to certain candidates has produced no small amount of political drama in past election years. Obama's presence on the dais at the Waldorf-Astoria is just one sign that this may be the Democrats' best year for Catholic support in decades.
Although the American Catholic community is too diverse to usefully refer to it as a monolithic bloc, presidential campaigns have long considered Catholic voters an essential part of a winning strategy. They are the largest single religious constituency in the electorate (33 million voted in 2004) and have aligned themselves with the winner in every presidential election going back to 1960, with the exception of 2000.
So it was perhaps no surprise that the Al Smith Dinner, which gives candidates the chance to hobnob with Catholic opinion leaders just weeks before an election, became what Theodore White called "a ritual of American politics." John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were the first contenders for the White House to share the dais at the event in 1960. Over the next two decades it was a standard campaign stop, a light-hearted evening to honor the memory of the first Catholic to win a major party's presidential nomination.
The trouble at least, for Democrats started in 1980. The Roe v. Wade decision had elevated the political importance of abortion, and while Catholics tentatively supported Jimmy Carter in 1976, they soon determined he was not the pro-life politician they had assumed. When Carter appeared with Ronald Reagan at the Al Smith Dinner, the crowd embraced the GOP challenger with warm applause. Carter was booed.
By 1984, New York's newly-appointed Archbishop John O'Connor had already spent much of his short time in the position taking on the state's two most prominent Catholic Democrats: Governor Mario Cuomo and Vice Presidential-nominee Geraldine Ferraro. By the time the dinner rolled along, tensions between the Catholic Church and the Democratic Party had become so strained that the Democratic nominee Walter Mondale simply skipped the event. Reagan attended alone and, on Election Day, captured 61% of Catholic voters, the largest share that any Republican presidential candidate had ever earned. No GOP candidate has matched it since.