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Trump’s Huuuge Catholic Problem

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Trump’s Huuuge Catholic Problem

Dr. Stephen F. Schneck


TrumpThe data are eye-openers. Perennial swing voters in American politics for more than half a century, Catholics are swinging hard against Donald Trump. So hard that it’s shocking to those of us who have studied Catholic voting over the years. Trump is currently losing to Hillary Clinton by a margin of about 25 points.

Barack Obama won the Catholic vote in his two elections, a bare 50% in 2012 and 53% in 2008. George W. Bush narrowly won the Catholic vote with about 52% in both 2000 and 2004. For historical perspective, Ronald Reagan won the Catholic vote very narrowly in 1980 (47%) and more easily in 1984 (55%). Notice, though, nobody has been winning the Catholics by a “huuuge” margin. Until now.

Among recent polls. A Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Clinton clobbering Trump among Catholics by 27 points, 61% to 34%. Last week’s Public Religion Research Institute poll has the margin at 23 points, 55% to 32%. The shift against Trump by Catholics, moreover, may be accelerating since polling by the Pew in June showed only a 17 point spread and exit polls had indicated pretty strong support for Trump among Republican and Independent Catholic voters during the late winter primaries.

Moreover, the Pew research turned up something very interesting about which Catholic group is most dynamic. The usual patterns are evident in numbers. Non-white Catholics are overwhelmingly supporting Clinton over Trump by a whopping 76% to 13%. Yet, there is no surprise there; non-white Catholics have supported the Democratic candidate by somewhat similar margins in past elections. What is surprising is looking at weekly Mass attending Catholics – a group that for several years has strongly leaned toward the GOP. That is not the case this year. Both churchgoing and non-churchgoing Catholics are about equal in supporting Clinton and opposing Trump. Indeed, there’s some indication that churchgoing Catholics are even more anti-Trump than non-churchgoing Catholics. The dynamic move of weekly Mass attending Catholics away from the GOP candidate is breathtaking.

What’s behind this astonishing shift in Catholic political opinion? More data is needed to answer that question with any confidence. Some of the shift can be attributed to the growing number of non-white Catholics in the United States. Not only are Catholics less white, but there is also a growing solidarity in the pews in welcoming that fact. Some of the shift might be indicative of the growing percentage of white Catholics who are college educated, in comparison for example with white Evangelicals and the American electorate as a whole. Trump is having significant problems with more highly educated voters. If I were a betting man, however, I’d put my money on a different factor – immigration.

The emphasis of the papacy of Pope Francis on welcoming the immigrant coincides with a burgeoning population of immigrants in the American Catholic community. Latinos, of course, are a big part of that population, but Asians and Africans are significant portions of these recently arrived Catholics, too. The American bishops have made outreach to these new confreres a priority. And, unlike some of the larger white population in the United States, white Catholics are often only two or so generations from being immigrants themselves and know well the discrimination faced by those generations. With all of this, I suspect, has come a distinctive attitude among American Catholics about the issue of immigration. In this attitude, they may be different in important ways from the general voting population.

Trump cannot win without doing better with Catholics and, if I’m right, the issue that’s motivating the Catholic shift is immigration. While The Donald may not “get” this, his pollster-turned-campaign-manager, Kellyanne Conway, likely does. It will be interesting to watch this play out over the next few weeks, because by the end of September I think the Catholic vote for 2016 will be set in stone.


The Institute will be hosting a media event, The Catholic Vote 2016, from 9:00 – 10:00 A.M. at the National Press Club, on October 31. The event will feature commentary and analysis by Cokie Roberts of ABC News, EJ Dionne of the Washington Post, and Robert Jones of Public Religion Research Institute. I, too, will be contributing. An announcement for registration will be sent to Fellows and friends of the Institute next week.