Next Tuesday’s presidential primaries include Illinois, the biggest state to vote so far that’s at least one-quarter Catholic. The returns from Chicago and its suburbs will help to show whether there’s a straight line from the fabled “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s, largely Catholic and working-class, to the Republicans voting for Donald J. Trump this election cycle.
“Catholic Trumpism” will certainly get more scrutiny if the front-runner secures the Republican nomination with help from big wins in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin, the remaining states with large non-Hispanic Catholic populations. There is a “consensus among conservative Catholics” for Mr. Trump, writes Massimo Faggioli in the Italian version of the Huffington Post. “The xenophobic and nationalist candidate has earned the vote of a majority of Catholic Republicans, either unaware or uninterested in the fact that Pope Francis said, just three weeks ago during his return flight from Mexico, that Trump's message ‘is not Christian.’”
So far Mr. Trump has run best, if you look at his share of the combined Democratic and Republican votes, in some of the least Catholic areas of the country. By this measure, his strongest states so far have been Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, where the Catholic population is estimated to be less than 10 percent. He’s also won caucuses in Kentucky—which, along with Tennessee, turned against the Democrats when the party nominated both John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Barack Obama in 2008.
But Mr. Trump has also received almost half the Republican vote in Massachusetts, one of the two or three most Catholic states, and in Macomb County, Mich., long considered a bellwether for the working-class Catholic vote. We have mostly geographic data to work with because few exit polls have looked at religion other than dividing the electorate into evangelical and non-evangelical categories. The CNN poll in Massachusetts estimated that 50 percent of Republican voters were Catholic and that 53 percent of those voted Mr. Trump (versus 49 percent of all Republican voters). But it doesn’t have comparable data for the Democratic primary, which attracted about twice as many voters, so we don’t know how he fared there among Catholics against Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study suggests fertile ground for Mr. Trump among Massachusetts Catholics: 59 percent favored “smaller government, fewer services” versus 36 percent for “bigger government, more services,” and 52 percent said government aid to the poor “does more harm than good.” My guess is that the respondents do not consider Social Security or Medicare or veterans’ benefits to be aid to the poor (ask your older relatives if you doubt this), so they would be amenable to Mr. Trump’s argument that government spending can be cut substantially by ending “waste, fraud and abuse.” The survey also found that 62 percent favored legal abortion “in all/most cases” and 64 percent favored same-sex marriage—which suggests they might be more comfortable with Mr. Trump, who doesn’t seem to have much interest in these issues, than with the more culturally conservative Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. Pew did not research views on waterboarding or killing the families of terrorists, so we can only guess how Mr. Trump’s advocacy of both plays among Catholics.
There’s a different story in the late primary state of California, where the Pew numbers indicate that Catholics are more liberal on the role of government (60 percent support “bigger government, more services”) and also more pro-life (only 46 percent said abortion should be legal “in most/all cases”). Hispanics make up a much bigger share of the Catholic population there and in Florida, which also votes this Tuesday (and where Mr. Rubio is counting on Hispanics and Cuban-Americans in particular to save his political career). California Catholics are probably less receptive to Mr. Trump’s vague promises to reduce the size of government, and certainly less likely to be favorable toward his harsh views against immigration. But few of them are likely to vote in the Republican primary in California, so they would be of little help to any movement to stop Mr. Trump from getting his party’s nomination.