Even early in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, there were signs that he might struggle to win the hearts of Catholic voters. He was competing for the nomination against a number of Catholic candidates. There were Christian missteps: He talked of Holy Communion as “my little wine” and “my little cracker”; he almost put money in a communion plate. But then he called Pope Francis “very political” because of his February visit to Mexico. When the pontiff fired back, criticizing Trump’s immigration stances, the Republican candidate said the popular pope’s comments were “disgraceful.” Trump later softened his criticism during a television appearance, but one could guess he won no accolades from Catholics in the process.
By the time Donald Trump emerged as the GOP nominee, it became clear that he underperformed with Catholics. Even after selecting Gov. Mike Pence, a self-described “evangelical Catholic” as his running mate, Donald Trump still has a problem with Catholic voters. And it’s a big problem. Perhaps, as he might say, it’s “yuge.”
In late August, a Washington Post headline declared, “Donald Trump has a massive Catholic problem.” Indeed, polls show Clinton up by about 25 points among Catholics in 2016. That gap accounts for millions of possible voters, as Catholics make up nearly a quarter of the American electorate. Catholic voters’ repudiation of the New York billionaire stands out, even compared to other groups that support Trump at lower levels than they supported Mitt Romney in 2012.
Commentators immediately seized on this shift as evidence of Hispanic voters’ near-unanimous repudiation of Trump, because of his immigration policies. American Catholicism is becoming more Hispanic and less white, and nonwhite Catholics, as with nonwhites in general, continue to support the Democratic presidential ticket by overwhelming margins. However, the polls reveal that Trump has a white Catholic problem as well.
Traditionally, Catholics were part of FDR’s New Deal coalition, and Kennedy won 80 percent of the Catholic vote in 1960. But white Catholics later warmed to the GOP, and Republican presidential candidates have won the white Catholic vote in 8 of the last 11 elections. Trump, however, is receiving significantly less support from white Catholics than recent Republican nominees have come to count on, based on data from the Pew Research Center and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). And there has been a significant movement of white Catholics away from Trump. In 2012, Romney won 59 percent of white Catholics’ votes, while Obama received 40 percent, according to Pew. Last month, PRRI data showed white Catholics preferring Clinton over Trump, 44 percent to 41 percent.
John Carr, who heads Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, recently told NPR, “Among church-going Catholics, I think there are several problems for Trump. One is temperament. Does he have the character, the qualities we want in a president? A second is background. He seems very secular.” Neither major-party presidential candidate is a clear-cut choice for Catholics—both oppose parts of the Church’s social teaching—but Trump appears to be driving Catholics toward Hillary Clinton. Among Catholics who attend Mass weekly, a demographic that Romney won 57 to 42 percent in 2012, Clinton is now winning their support by an overwhelming margin, 57 to 38 percent, according to Pew.
Why are Catholics, unlike their white evangelical counterparts, rejecting Trump’s candidacy so decisively? Perhaps Trump’s calls for border walls and mass deportations, as well as his uncharitable rhetoric about immigrants, are some of the reasons for Catholics’ lack of enthusiasm for the nativist hardliner. After all, immigration remains an integral part of American Catholic experience. The U.S. bishops have long advocated strongly for comprehensive immigration reforms that Trump repudiates. Whether from personal memory or family history, the experience of emigrating from a Catholic culture—whether in Italy, Ireland, Latin American, or elsewhere—to a predominantly Protestant, English-speaking country unites U.S. Catholics from a multitude of backgrounds.
There’s also the Pope Francis factor. Whereas American Protestants have a long history of ugly anti-Catholic views, today they are likelier to see popes as global leaders who help bring down communism, forge new paths in interfaith relations, and model mercy and compassion in a broken and hurting world. Pope Francis has enjoyed sky-high favorability ratings in the U.S. Maybe, then, Trump’s decision to criticize the pope spurred on Catholic dislike of a candidate whose brash rhetoric contrasts sharply with the pontiff. Pope Francis reacted to Trump’s border wall proposal especially harshly, telling reporters on his return flight to Rome, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
We could argue, though, that Trump’s deficit with Catholics is less of a swing than a continuation of a trend. It’s true that the Catholic vote was competitive in the 2000 and 2004 elections. It has even been something of a bellwether in recent decades. The Catholic vote has closely mirrored the popular vote overall, meaning that in the aggregate, Catholic voters are very much like the electorate at large. A presidential candidate who wins the Catholic vote can reasonably expect to win the election, even if there is significant variation within the broad Catholic category. Obama won the Catholic vote in 2012, even as he lost the white Catholic vote by 19 points.
Moreover, there is one caveat in talking about the “Catholic vote,” and that is that the vote itself is not monolithic. Much like the phrase “evangelical,” the Catholic label in surveys is often not very useful on its own. American Catholics were once more coherently united behind a basic set of doctrinal beliefs, political attitudes, and religious practices. American Catholicism today is much more diverse. Any meaningful analysis of “the Catholic vote” needs some measure of religiosity (doctrinal beliefs, frequency of church attendance or prayer, etc.). Among U.S. Catholics, there exists significant variation in political preferences based on income, educational attainment, race, and frequency of Mass attendance.
It is clear, however, that there is something about being Catholic that makes a subset of white voters hesitant about Trump. Washington Post political correspondent James Hohmann recently spent a Sunday morning interviewing white Catholics in Iowa at their parish’s pancake breakfast. None of them expressed enthusiasm about voting for Clinton, but most of them also had serious qualms about supporting Trump. In recent decades, Catholic clergy have arguably elevated the importance of being anti-abortion over other issues where the church’s theology differs from political conservatism. But the natural choice for anti-abortion Catholics is not as clear this year, as voters are faced with Clinton, who is for abortion rights, and Trump, who professes to be anti-abortion but whose views on the issue have changed over the years. Of Trump, one church member told Hohmann, “All he does is knock other people down. I want to support someone who supports life in all its forms.”
Faithful Catholics face difficult choices in American politics. The 2016 outcome may depend less on whether conservative-leaning white Catholics vote for Clinton than whether they vote at all. Given the decline in churchgoing among working-class whites, it may be truer that Trump is driving white college-educated voters away from the GOP than that white Catholics find him significantly less appealing than recent nominees. Politics and demographics aside, it seems altogether sensible that even Republican Catholics, enlivened by the liturgy and nourished by the sacraments, would reject the current nominee’s rhetoric and platform. This election has prompted widespread soul-searching, and at least among many Catholics, the polls show that the GOP nominee has lost their vote.
Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Georgetown.