Four years after Catholic Americans helped seal Donald Trump’s come-from-behind victory with a flood of support in the industrial Midwest, they could deliver his defeat on Tuesday.
In the closing days of the 2020 race, polls have shown Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden with a steady lead among Catholic voters, one of the most consequential voting blocs this presidential cycle and a demographic the Trump campaign is counting on to deliver all-important toss-ups — like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio — to their side on Election Day.
“There’s no doubt we have to win the Catholic vote. It is essential to our reelection,” said Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence.
But the state of the Catholic vote four days before the Nov. 3 election underscores the immense challenge the Trump campaign has faced in its year-long attempt to lock in religious voters who appear inclined to support Biden — despite approving of the president’s job performance — out of sheer frustration with Trump’s personality and concerns over the division his presidency has sowed.
A mid-October survey by EWTN and RealClearPolitics showed Trump with a 47 percent approval rating among Catholics, but only 40 percent support when respondents were asked who they would vote for if the election were held today. Ditto for a Marquette Law School poll released last week where Trump’s job approval rating (52 percent) among Wisconsin Catholics exceeded their support for his reelection (48 percent).
“If he loses, it’s because people who otherwise support him are just sick of it all,” said one adviser to the Trump campaign. “It’s because of voters who kind of like Trump, but ‘just can’t take this anymore.’ It’s because voters will choose a calm Thanksgiving dinner with their Democratic and Republican relatives over another policy victory or Supreme Court justice.”
It’s a concern that is particularly salient among Catholic voters in Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes region, where a cultural kinship with Biden, a practicing Catholic himself, has put the president at a disadvantage. And it’s a conundrum some of Trump’s allies begrudgingly admit could sink his shot at a second term.
“Half of Biden’s advantage right now is the shift among Catholics, who are facing a push-and-pull effect. Trump has pushed them away with his gruffness and extremism, while Biden pulls them in because he’s a white Catholic himself who speaks authentically about their shared faith,” said Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University who has been tracking data on Catholic voters in the Trump era.
The other issue for Trump is that in his campaign’s effort to court Catholic voters with a laser-like focus on his conservative policy accomplishments, they have allowed concerns about his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, immigration and the protests over racial injustice to go unaddressed.
Trump campaign aides insist Catholic voters will turn out for the president at similar levels to 2016, when the president carried white Catholics by a 23-point margin and won the overall Catholic vote by 7 percentage points, because he fulfilled policy promises on abortion, school choice and religious freedom, and installed three conservative justices on the Supreme Court, in addition to hundreds of judicial appointments at the federal court level.
“What we keep finding is that the president’s record resonates with the Catholic voters,” Mercedes Schlapp, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, said in an interview between campaign stops in Wisconsin on Friday. “We have the fact that the president just confirmed Amy Coney Barrett, and in addition to that his strong pro-life record is another issue and the fact that he’s been a fighter for religious liberty is very important to Catholic voters.”
But the polls tell a different story about Catholic voters’ satisfaction with Trump’s policy achievements and his handling of the issues they’re prioritizing as the election closes in.
Only 29 percent of non-Protestant/Catholic voters said they somewhat or strongly agree that Trump “keeps his promises,” according to a POLITICO-Morning Consult survey conducted after the final presidential debate in Nashville, Tenn., last Thursday. The same survey also found that Catholic voters trust Biden more on the economy, jobs, health care, the coronavirus, race relations and public safety — suggesting the president’s opposition to coronavirus-related church lockdowns, which he and his campaign have billed as a threat to religious freedom, and his law-and-order message have failed to attract Catholic voters as much as Biden’s approach. In Wisconsin alone, a state where one in four religious adults identify as Catholic, 53 percent of Catholic voters disapprove of his response to the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Marquette Law School poll.
“I really think the Catholic vote is the canary in the coal mine. If exit polls show Trump in the low 50s with white Catholics in Pennsylvania, it’s game over for him there and Michigan and Wisconsin,” said Burge.
The Trump campaign hasn’t shied away from acknowledging it could be in trouble. One adviser to the campaign said the president and his aides expected a pair of polling bumps following his performance in the Nashville debate and the Senate confirmation of Barrett, a Catholic mother of seven and deeply conservative judge, to the Supreme Court. But they’ve been disappointed to see little movement in national polls coming out of both events.
Short said Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to Columbus, Ohio, on Columbus Day, a day in which many cultural Catholics celebrate the colonial figure, was “very intentionally” meant to shore up Catholic support for Trump in the crucial battleground state where polls show the president running neck-and-neck against Biden. Trump secured the state’s 18 electoral votes with an eight-point margin of victory against Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, and an early loss in the Buckeye State on election night could be an indication of a result that leans in Biden’s favor.
“We’ve delivered on a lot of issues that are important, but it’s a different opponent this time,” said Short, noting that Biden “probably has more appeal” among Catholic voters than Hillary Clinton had as the Democratic nominee in 2016.
Part of the reason for Biden’s success in pulling a considerable portion of Catholic voters away from Trump is that his campaign has been more intentional in trying to do so than Clinton was in 2016 and many of his Democratic primary opponents were this cycle. The former vice president has invoked his faith in speeches about the coronavirus pandemic, racism and economic equality, made a point to pursue outreach to religious communities and is widely seen as more virtuous than Trump, particularly among Catholic voters. In September, the Biden campaign unveiled an initiative aimed at driving turnout among progressive Catholic voters and courting cultural Catholics in the Rust Belt who tend to overlap with the blue-collar workers both the former vice president and Trump are after.
On Thursday, Biden published an op-ed in the Christian Post discussing the “abiding principles” that have guided his career in politics — principally the Christian commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The last-ditch attempt to reach religious voters comes amid Trump’s repeated attempts at his campaign rallies to portray Biden as “against God.”
“It has become too easy in recent years to define our neighbors as ‘others‘ rather than children of God and fellow Americans. It has to stop. We have to strive harder to come together, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is the work we are all called to by God,” Biden wrote.
But even if Biden carries the Catholic vote on Election Day and chips away at Trump’s grip on white Catholics, there is one group that remains an unknown factor this cycle and could come to the president’s rescue: Hispanic Catholics, who could help Trump at the margins in states like Florida, Nevada and Arizona, where polls have shown him and Biden locked in a dead heat.
It would be nearly impossible for Trump to carry Hispanic Catholics outright — they voted for Clinton by a 41-point margin in 2016 — but their support for the Democratic ticket four years ago did decrease from 2012. A small increase for Trump could be enough to compensate for a single-digit margin of defeat among white Catholic voters.
“Hispanic Catholics are interesting because they are more culturally conservative than white Catholics on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and with the Supreme Court, I think that’s a check for Trump with the Hispanic Catholic vote,” said Burge.