One hundred years ago, the Democrats were the second-place party, only occasionally breaking out of its Electoral College prison in the rural South. It was saved by the Catholic vote—first the Irish, then the Polish, the Italians and other immigrant groups—which allowed the Democrats to win Northern urban states like New York and Pennsylvania. By the 1960s, when the South began to break away from the party over civil rights, Catholics were the backbone of the Democratic Party.
Since then, the Catholic vote has split and split again. Beginning in the 1970s, Catholic voters began moving toward the Republican Party, with many turned off by the Democrats’ championing of legalized abortion and an air of hostility toward religion in general. (See “Identity Politics,”Am., 10/27/2014.) Overall, the Catholic vote has been similar to that of the nation as a whole in recent elections. According to 2012 exit polls, Democrat Barack Obama won Catholic voters by two points, close to his four-point win among all voters. But that result masks big differences within the Catholic population.
A Pew Research Center analysis found that the Republican Mitt Romney beat Mr. Obama among white non-Hispanic Catholics by nearly 20 points (59 to 40), while Hispanic Catholics backed the president by more than three to one (75 to 21). That put white Catholics closer to white evangelical Protestants, who supported Mr. Romney by nearly 60 points (79 to 20). The same analysis found that regular churchgoers, both Catholic and Protestant, were significantly more likely to vote Republican.
This year’s Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, is counting on these deep divisions among Catholic voters to beat his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. He needs big support from what could be called the 1960 version of the Catholic vote, the one that put John F. Kennedy in the White House—that is, almost all white, with few college graduates. The Republicans need such voters to compensate for the newer elements of the American Catholic population, including Hispanics and highly educated suburbanites, both of whom have been trending Democratic in recent presidential elections. Most of all, Mr. Trump needs to hold together a shaky alliance between white Catholics and white evangelical Protestants, one that dates back only a few decades.
The Catholic Viewpoint
Though few exit polls in the presidential primaries included data on Catholic voters, this election year has already produced more survey data on the political views of different religious groups than ever before. In some respects, Catholics (particularly white Catholics) have similar views to those of evangelical Protestants. In other ways, Mr. Trump and the Republicans seem at risk of reversing their party’s recent gains among Catholic voters.
A Pew Research Center survey taken last year, shortly after Pope Francis addressed the U.S. Congress and urged them to embrace “those who travel north in search of a better life,” found that only 36 percent of white Catholics believed that immigrants “strengthen” the United States, not drastically different from the 24 percent of white evangelicals who took that view. And a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, released in June, asked whether discrimination against whites has become “as big a problem” as discrimination against racial minorities. Majorities of white evangelicals (68 percent) and white Catholics (62 percent) said yes, but 61 percent of Hispanic Catholics took the opposite view.
Another question from the P.R.R.I. poll got at the heart of Mr. Trump’s appeal. Respondents were asked if the “American culture and way of life” has “changed for the worse” since the 1950s. Among white Catholics, 64 percent said yes, putting them between white evangelical Protestants (70 percent said things have gotten worse) and white mainline Protestants (54 percent). But among Hispanic Catholics, 62 percent said the United States has changed for the better, along with 69 percent of black Protestants and 61 percent of those unaffiliated with any religion.
The poll did not specify how things have gotten worse since the 1950s. Since that decade, American Catholics have experienced the civil rights movement, the “sexual revolution,” the Second Vatican Council, multiple wars, de-industrialization and the decline of labor unions, and a fraying of the social fabric described by the sociologist Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone. The 1960s also brought a change in immigration policy that eliminated the preferential treatment of white Europeans and has resulted in a sharp increase in Asian and Latino immigrants.
As Robert P. Jones, the chief executive officer of P.R.R.I., writes in The End of White Christian America, published this summer, the past four decades have seen “swift and dramatic” demographic changes, including a decline in the white majority and a rise in those not affiliated with any religion: “Falling numbers and the marginalization of a once dominant racial and religious identity—one that has been central not just to white Christians themselves but to the national mythos—threatens white Christians’ understanding of America itself.”
Mr. Trump is appealing to voters uncomfortable with that change; and white evangelicals have seemed receptive, even if the candidate does not seem very familiar with Christian theology. But white Catholics may not have exactly the same worldview. In the June P.R.R.I. poll, 77 percent of white evangelicals said that discrimination against Christians is a significant problem in the United States, compared with only 53 percent of white Catholics and 50 percent of Hispanic Catholics. And on another touchstone issue, same-sex marriage, Catholics seem less resistant to change. A national Pew Research Center poll from this spring found that 58 percent of Catholics now support same-sex marriage, compared with only 27 percent of white evangelical Protestants.
The Republican Gamble
While putting Donald Trump on the road to a presidential nomination, the voters in early Republican primaries passed over several Catholic candidates with a longer history of support for at least some restrictions on abortion (including Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Rick Santorum, Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Chris Christie). Mr. Trump has promised to support Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, but he has not always been in snyc with the anti-abortion movement (suggesting, at one point, that women who have abortions should face criminal penalties) and has not been on the pro-life page when it comes to capital punishment, assisted suicide or the use of torture by the U.S. military.
In March, before Mr. Trump had secured the Republican nomination, 37 Catholic academics signed a letter published in National Review condemning Mr. Trump: “There is nothing in his campaign or his previous record that gives us grounds for confidence that he genuinely shares our commitments to the right to life, to religious freedom and the rights of conscience, to rebuilding the marriage culture, or to subsidiarity and the principle of limited constitutional government.” Several of the signatories reaffirmed their opposition to Mr. Trump in late July to Michael O’Loughlin, America’s national correspondent, with David R. Upham, associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas, calling the election “an especially dismal choice.”
These academics did not necessarily reflect the views of Catholic voters, even Republican ones. Exit polls from only two primaries looked at the Catholic vote, but in both Florida and Massachusetts Mr. Trump was near 50 percent among both Catholics and voters overall. (White evangelicals, who were studied in almost every primary, also voted for Mr. Trump at about the same rate as everyone else, but in the few states where the question was asked, Mr. Trump fared worse among all regular churchgoers.)
Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University noted that the letter in National Review did not cite Pope Francis (only St. John Paul II) and instead based its anti-Trump argument “on an interpretation of the church’s social teachings that is identical to that of American liberal capitalism: their thesis is that Trump is no good for Catholics because Trump is no good for American capitalism.” But Catholic supporters of Mr. Trump, wrote Mr. Faggioli, were more concerned with “the religious freedom of Catholics around the country who felt under fire from the Obama administration” and found “a surrogate in the ethnic and nationalistic victimhood professed by Trump against Latinos and the Chinese.”
Some popular Catholic journalists are more neutral or favorable toward Trump. The Fox News host Sean Hannity has been one of Mr. Trump’s loudest supporters. The Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan took offense at comparisons between Mr. Trump and the president she once worked for, Ronald Reagan, but she has tried to explain his appeal, calling him a “vivid” figure and, commenting on his call for a ban on immigrants from nations “compromised” by terrorism, wrote, “to most Americans it will sound like simple common sense.”
Another former presidential speechwriter, Patrick J. Buchanan, is more firmly in Mr. Trump’s corner. Mr. Trump’s “law and order” speech drew comparisons to the campaigns of Mr. Buchanan’s former boss, Richard Nixon, who won the white Catholic vote in 1972, when the Democrats could not even be competitive without it. In an interview with Sean Salai, S.J., a frequent contributor to America, in 2014, Mr. Buchanan said that President Nixon “did not tear apart…the social safety net that a lot of Catholics favored.” Mr. Trump, similarly, has distanced himself from Republicans who call for “entitlement reform” and has promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act but at the same time “broaden healthcare access.”
Mr. Trump picked as his running mate Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, who was raised as a Catholic but now describes himself as simply a “Christian.” Last year, Governor Pence got into a dispute with Catholic Charities in the archdiocese of Indianapolis over the agency’s plan to resettle refugees from Syria in the state; Governor Pence opposed the plan for “security” reasons, but Archbishop Joseph Tobin went ahead and resettled a Syrian family. This issue probably will not shift many votes in November; P.R.R.I. found that 49 percent of white Catholics and 45 percent of Hispanic Catholics support a ban on accepting refugees from Syria, close to the 44 percent of all Americans who favor such a measure.
The Democrats and Abortion
The only Catholic on a major-party ticket this year is Mrs. Clinton’s running mate: Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who attended a Jesuit high school in Kansas City and worked with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras before beginning his political career. Mr. Kaine is looking to succeed another Catholic, Joe Biden, as vice president, but where Mr. Biden emphasized his Irish roots (“malarkey!”) and childhood in the former coal city of Scranton, Pa., Mr. Kaine is valued for his fluent Spanish and his track record of getting votes in the white-collar suburbs of northern Virginia.
At the same time that Mrs. Clinton continued the recent practice of religious ticket-balancing, she supported changes to the Democratic platform that pulled the party even further from pro-life principles. Mr. Kaine broke with the platform by affirming his support of the Hyde Amendment, which bans the federal funding of abortions except in cases involving rape or incest (see “Defend the Hyde Amendment,”Am., 8/15). He says he is personally opposed to abortion and as governor of Virginia supported some bipartisan pro-life measures; but since being elected to the Senate, he has received near-perfect ratings from pro-choice groups.
The Democratic platform, as well as Mr. Kaine’s Senate voting record, suggest the party has little interest in winning over pro-life voters, who have been courted by Republicans since the 1970s. Shortly after the Democratic convention, the leader of the Knights of Columbus, Carl Anderson, told an international meeting of his organization: “It is time to end the entanglement of Catholic people with abortion killing. It is time to stop creating excuses for voting for pro-abortion politicians.”
The party platform includes many policy recommendations that line up with the “Economic Justice” section of the U.S. bishops’ document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Still, the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters found a discordant note at the party convention: “On virtually every issue, they struck a distinctly anti-libertarian tone. The theme of Clinton's campaign—‘Stronger Together’—was on every lip. But, when the discussion turns to abortion, it is all about individual autonomy, and not for the unborn child.”
Here again, Catholic voters seem close to the country as a whole. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found 54 percent of Catholics agreeing that abortion should be legal on all or most cases, almost identical to the 56 percent of all Americans with this view. (Only 29 percent of white evangelical voters agreed.) The Pew Center also reported that 46 percent of Catholics consider abortion “very important” in deciding whom to vote for, compared with 78 percent saying the same about health care and 75 percent about immigration.
The Francis Effect
This will be the first U.S. presidential election since Pope Francis became head of the Catholic Church in 2013—and since the release of the encyclical “Laudato Si,’” with its warnings against the excesses of capitalism and environmental destruction. It also follows the pope’s address to the U.S. Congress last year, in which he emphasized social justice issues and implicitly criticized the electoral process. (“We live in a time when our politics is too often marked by self-interest and demeaning rhetoric. We seem to be caught in a political system paralyzed by ideological extremism and hyper-partisanship.”) This February, the pope became further involved in American politics when he answered a question about Mr. Trump’s immigration policies, including the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico, by saying: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.”
Few expect a sea change in how Catholics vote in the Pope Francis era, but even a slight move away from the Republicans—and a widening divergence from the white evangelical vote—could greatly reduce Mr. Trump’s chances of winning. In an August poll by ABC and The Washington Post, Mr. Trump led among white evangelical Protestants 76 to 18 and among white non-evangelical Protestants 55 to 38. But Mrs. Clinton had a slight lead among white non-Hispanic Catholics, 51 to 45. (Data on Hispanic voters was not broken down by religion.) This is a much wider difference between white Protestants and white Catholics than we have seen in recent elections. Leah Libresco noted on 538.com that “Catholics who attend Mass weekly have increased their support for the Democratic nominee by 22 percentage points relative to 2012. They support Hillary Clinton at about the same rate as fallen-away Catholics,” though regular churchgoers have traditionally been more Republican.
This shift raises the possibility that Mr. Trump’s confrontational style, and the near-apocalyptic vision of the United States he outlined in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in July, is not playing as well with Catholic voters as with evangelicals. One possibility is that many Catholics are uncomfortable with Mr. Trump’s disparagement of Muslims, a religious minority; this would also explain the Republican candidate’s weakness in the mostly Mormon state of Utah.
Mr. Trump may also fare better with evangelicals familiar with the “prosperity gospel,” or “Christian libertarianism,” made popular by the Rev. James Fifield in the 1930s and ’40s. As the Princeton historian Kevin Krause recently told The Atlantic: “In his telling, a good Christian goes to heaven; a bad one goes to hell. A good capitalist makes profit, a bad one goes to the poorhouse.” Mr. Trump’s wealth is thus seen as a sign of goodness. Pope Francis has a different view, attacking the idea that “God shows that you are good by giving you great wealth.”
But if Catholics and Protestants vote differently this year, religious belief may not be the best explanation. The markers of political allegiance can get complicated in a nation as big and diverse as the United States, and in a group as large as American Catholics—who make up the single largest religious denomination in the United States, translating to about 20 percent of all registered voters.
The question is: If white Protestants and white Catholics do vote differently this year, is it because of their religious beliefs or because Protestants are more likely to live in the rural South, with its long history of voting along racial lines, and Catholics are more likely to live in the urbanized North, with its long history of support for more activist government?
There are certainly geographic differences within the Catholic vote. Mr. Romney got 71 percent of the white non-Hispanic Catholic vote in North Carolina and 65 percent in Virginia, but only 52 percent of the same group in Iowa and 42 percent in Maine. The more polling data one goes through, the more it seems that Catholics vote similarly to their neighbors.
Another factor is educational attainment. This year’s polls consistently show that Mr. Trump is doing as well as or better than Mr. Romney did among voters with only a high school education but is doing significantly worse among college graduates. The Pew Research Center’s 2015 Religious Landscape Study found that 26 percent of American Catholics are college graduates, compared with 21 percent of evangelical Protestants. When it is taken into account that a large segment of Catholics without college degrees are Hispanic, a group with which Mr. Trump’s is faring poorly, it would not be a surprise if the Republican’s strength among less-educated voters does not translate into gains among Catholics.
However, it is essentially impossible for Mr. Trump to win by carrying only self-identified white Protestants, who make up a majority of the population in just six states. If he fails to keep white Catholic voters in the fold, they will surely be included with Hispanic voters as the focus of any post-election “autopsy.”