Politics & Policy

Trump’s Catholic Problem

(Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
Polls show Donald Trump is struggling to appeal to Catholic voters, a longtime swing demographic.

A central theme of this year’s presidential election has been Donald Trump’s failure to capture the support of key voting groups such as women, African Americans, and Hispanics. Now, he is losing by an unrecoverable margin in another key voting bloc, one that has swung between the two major political parties for over half a century: Catholics.

A poll from the Public Religion Research Institute shows Trump trailing Clinton among Catholic voters by 23 points, 55–32. Meanwhile, a Washington Post-ABC News poll from early August has Trump down by 27 points, 61–34. Neither of these statistics is promising for the Republican nominee, especially given the central role Catholic voters historically have played in presidential elections.

Catholics account for around one-quarter of the overall electorate, and they are typically split about evenly between the Republican and Democratic parties. The majority of Catholics have supported the winning presidential candidate in nearly every election since 1948, the most recent exception being in 2000, when they narrowly swung for Al Gore over George W. Bush.

The Catholic voting bloc is rightly described as a swing group, but obviously not every Catholic voter is up for grabs in every election cycle. Among Catholics, certain subgroups tend to vote in a more predictable way; white, conservative Catholics usually vote Republican, while white liberal Catholics and Hispanic Catholics almost always vote Democrat. It is the Catholic moderates, the largest plurality among Catholic voters at about 33 percent, who account for much of the group’s swinging between parties.

Trump’s lack of Catholic support is the result of voters abandoning him on both sides of the spectrum.

While Trump’s strong anti-immigration stances have contributed to his problems with Catholic voters, particularly Hispanics, this alone does not explain the huge decline in Trump’s Catholic support. The PRC reports that Hispanic Catholics already have been largely supporting Democrats, at least since 2000, likely due to the Republican party’s immigration policy. Nor can Trump’s shaky support for the pro-life cause and uninspiring stances on religious liberty and same-sex marriage be held solely to blame. According to the PRC, most Catholics have other areas of concern. This year, their top five issues of concern are, in order of importance: The economy, terrorism, health care, immigration, and foreign policy. Abortion and “treatment of LGBT people” (a somewhat ambiguous category) rank at the very bottom of the 14 issues under consideration. In addition, white Catholic moderates tend to align more closely with liberal Catholics than conservative Catholics on social issues.

In other words, it seems plausible that Trump’s lack of Catholic support is the result of voters abandoning him on both sides of the spectrum: moderates swinging in the liberal direction toward Hillary as the result of his “toxic” rhetoric, and conservatives avoiding him for fear that he is not a real conservative.

Catholic discontent is not limited to Trump. The PRC reports that 57 percent of Catholics as a whole, 53 percent of Hispanic Catholics, and 59 percent of white Catholics are dissatisfied with both major-party candidates. That the majority of Catholics support Clinton seems to be the product of their much stronger dislike for Trump, rather than of any great affinity for Clinton per se.

#related#This enormous rise in Catholic support for the Democratic nominee over the Republican indicates another area in which Trump has significantly damaged the GOP, as he confirms Hispanics’ suspicions that the Republican party is fully embracing a strong anti-immigration — and perhaps anti-immigrant — policy, and his rhetoric affirms liberal Catholics’ belief that the GOP tolerates “bigotry.” It is worth remembering that the Republican party secured a majority of the Catholic vote as recently as 2004, and Mitt Romney lost it by only two percentage points in 2012. Given Catholics’ dissatisfaction with Clinton in this election cycle, one wonders whether a different GOP nominee — perhaps a fellow Catholic such as Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio — might have galvanized historic Catholic support. For now, however, it is not to be.

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