My sister attends classes at a small Catholic school just twenty miles outside of Pittsburgh. The area is mostly white, suburban and situated in what pundits affectionately call the heartland. This time of year, towns like hers appear on television only as placard-filled auditoriums; ubiquitous stops in a “swing” state that could make or break the election for either U.S. presidential candidate. For the sake of privacy, I’ll call my sister “Kara” and keep the others details to a minimum. She’s thirteen, and as tough a cookie as she is, I think she’s taken enough grief during this especially salty campaign season. Kara’s troubles began last month, when her school announced it would be holding a mock election, to be followed several days later by a mock debate. The order of events struck me as counterintuitive, but not surprising. In today’s polarized world, partisan politics trump all. Even in eighth grade.

Kara decided she was going to oppose the president, mostly because she opposed his war in Iraq. For the next few weeks, she fomented her distaste. She surfed anti-Bush web sites and took notes on various Democratic positions. She had me send her anti-Bush political buttons from New York, and displayed them proudly on her backpack. Kara was an anomaly at school—there were only two Kerry supporters in her class of fifty—and she quickly discovered the repercussions for going against the grain.

Kids teased her in class. “We don’t want to sit by a democrat” or “Kerry and his horse face won’t do anything good for America.” At home, friends heckled her via AOL’s Instant Messenger. They wrote pro-Bush messages and offered links to conservative sites on their AOL profiles. The most popular links, Kara explained, led to sites with pictures of Kerry daintily throwing a football. “Do you really want a president who throws like a girl?” her friends would write her. Kerry used “tan in a can,” they insisted, and had Botox injections in his forehead.

Kara huffed about her classmates one night on the telephone. “They vote for whoever their parents tell them,” she complained. Doubtful any of her friends’ families stood to gain much from the Bush tax cuts. It’s the president’s pro-family persona and never-say-die patriotism that resonate in her socially conservative community. But that doesn’t explain the young teens’ fixation on the trivialities—the cosmetic surgery enhancements and such. Where were they getting this stuff? My sister explained. “The internet—they look stuff up and copy it.” Ah, yes. They picked up their immaturity from grown men and women.

A quick Google search produced photos of Kerry in all his limp-wristed glory. They, along with other incriminating sports pics, appeared on the “Football Fans for Truth” web site (this was the same group that put up billboards in Wisconsin which mocked Kerry for mispronouncing the name of the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field). The “horse face” barb was repeated on dozens of blogs and discussion boards, while the “Botox” allegations—which Kerry vehemently denied—found a place in more mainstream media like the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Daily News. The kids must have missed the “wizbangblog,” which tackled the critical issue of who’s hotter—the Bush or Kerry girls. At last tally, the southern belles were up 58 to 41 percent in the site’s online poll. With a turnout of more than 4,000 voters, its unlikely Kara’s class could sway its results, but the poll could provide ample fodder for future banter. Maybe the old saying is true: the “real world” really is middle school all grown up.

Thankfully, the internet’s trash culture didn’t get in the way of the issues completely. The kids were eager to sound off about the war in Iraq. Talking to my sister, I was struck by how much the students’ discourse sounded like that of the presidential candidates. There were the same sweeping generalizations, the same economy of language. My sister snapped that the war was “unjustified” and “illegal” while her classmates shot back a simple truism: “When you’re attacked, you fight back.”

Their debates were more enlightening than those of the prime-time talking heads. Stripped of jargon and euphemisms like “collateral damage,” moral dilemmas were effectively reduced to their simplest terms.

“I’d be like ‘we’re risking soldiers lives in Iraq,’” Kara told me, “and they’d say that we aren’t risking soldiers because they signed up to do it. It doesn’t matter if they die because they signed up to do it.”

The weeks leading up to my sister’s mock elections also offered a microcosmic glimpse into what could be Kerry’s biggest challenge in the heartland. Pundits have chattered about the importance of the Catholic vote. Nearly a quarter of the American electorate identifies themselves as Catholic. In 2000, Bush earned more of this vote (47 percent) than either Republican candidate had in the previous two elections. Thanks to tough talk on gay marriage, stem cell research and abortion, he stands to win over the majority of them on Nov. 2. He’s getting help from church leaders, who have increasingly mounted pressure on their constituencies to support pro-life candidates. Just last week, a West Virginia Bishop instructed parishioners that a vote for a pro-choice politician amounted to “cooperation in grave evil.” The ballots of Kara’s classmates won’t do much in the 2004 election, but their school already seems to be priming them for 2012.

“They had us watch a video that talked about the right to life,” Kara explained the week before her mock election. “It said God has a choice to make us live. So all the students started saying I was sinning if I voted for John Kerry.”

In the end, Kara’s grassroots campaign was no match for the staying power of religion, patriotism and family values in Western Pennsylvania. Only she and two others voted Democrat. She’s trying not to become discouraged, since Tuesday’s election is the only one which really matters. Regardless of what happens then, Democrats ought to consider planning ahead. If Kara’s school is any indication of the attitudes of future swing state voters, they have to make up for a lot of lost ground.