We’ve talked a lot this year about women voters, Hispanic voters, and white college-educated voters, slicing and dicing the electorate in order to identify the constituencies that are likely to swing the ’16 contest. But here’s a key factoid that has been lamentably overlooked:
Catholics – who comprise 25 percent of the electorate – have swung 9 of the last 11 presidential races dating back to the Dick Nixon era.
Only twice did they fail to do so. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter won the White House, they split their votes evenly between Carter and Gerald Ford; in 2000, they favored Al Gore by three points, buoying his popular vote victory, but the Supreme Court stepped in and dragged George W. Bush across the finish line. Otherwise, it’s fair to tag Catholics as the ultimate swing-voting constituency.
When a candidate wins a Catholic majority, it’s usually by a modest margin. In Barack Obama’s re-election contest with Mitt Romney, he won Catholics by two points. In ’08 against John McCain, he won them by nine points. In ’04, George W. Bush beat John Kerry by five points. Those are the typical margins.
But now let’s check out Catholic sentiment about the ’16 race. Fasten your seat belts.
According to a new poll by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, Catholics support Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by an otherwordly 23 percentage points – 55 to 32. And that jibes with the ABC News-Washington Post poll, which reported earlier this month that Clinton’s lead among Catholics is 27 points – 61 to 34.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of those stats. Catholics have a disproportionately large presence in the Rustbelt states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania. And even though these record-high Clinton margins are heavily driven by Hispanic Catholics’ enmity toward Trump, what’s most stunning is that, according to the PRRI poll, she leads by three points among white Catholics. According to the latest ABC-Post poll, she leads by six points among white Catholics. This is big news. For generations, Republican candidates have won yuuuge with white Catholics. But they’re ditching Donald Trump in droves.
Also, there has long been a reliable rule of thumb: The most loyal Catholic Republicans were those who went to church every week. But that rule has been shelved in ’16. According to a summer poll by the Pew Research Center, Clinton leads Trump among weekly churchgoers by a whopping 19 points.
Why is Trump bombing with swing Catholics? It’s not exactly a mystery. They detest him for the same reasons that sicken the tens of millions of Americans who dwell outside the Trumpkin bubble. And although Catholics are certainly not monolithic in their politics (they range from anti-abortion conservatives to social justice liberals), their general sensibility doesn’t sync with Trump’s demagoguery. Starting with his February attacks on Pope Francis (“a very political person” whose opposition to the Mexican wall is “disgraceful”).
As Catholic analyst John Gehring points out, in a recent piece on Trump’s Catholic woes, “It doesn’t take a high-priced political consultant to tell you that being on the wrong side of a widely popular pope who has captivated people far beyond the Catholic Church is a bad place to be.” He also said this, about Trump ‘s disconnect with the Catholic sensibility: “His brash oratorical style and often-simplistic arguments don’t sit well with experiences Catholics have with the quiet beauty of Catholic liturgy, or a Catholic intellectual tradition that for centuries has underscored the synthesis of faith and reason.”
Another Catholic analyst, Matthew Schmitz, says that Trump insults the tenets of the faith: “Christianity is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord. To those without reason for optimism, it holds up the cross as a sign of hope.” But Trump mocks all that: “He has called the widow whose house he tried to take a ‘terrible human being’ whose lawyer is a ‘loser.’He has mocked a reporter for having a disfigured hand. He has demeaned a contestant on one of his reality shows by suggesting how she’d look in a pornographic scenario….This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners.”
But for most Catholics, Trump’s racist hostility to immigrants is the biggest turnoff – given Catholics’ awareness of their own struggles in America barely a century ago.
John Gehring writes: “When Trump calls for a religious test for Muslims entering the country…and demonizes undocumented immigrants as ‘rapists,’ it’s a reminder of the ugly nativism that Catholics once faced. While this contemporary strain of old xenophobia is particularly felt by Latinos who increasingly are the face of the Catholic Church in the United States, many white Catholics surely take pride in family stories of grandparents and great-grandparents who were strangers in a new land. Trump has dug himself a deep hole he is unlikely to climb out of with these voters.”
This is another reason why Trump is trying to reset his immigration stance with a new speech, due very soon, that will soften the hardening or whatever it is that his handlers load on the teleprompter. Good luck to him. When you’re down by as much as 27 points with a swing demographic, with a year’s worth of embedded bad vibes and just 71 days left on the clock, you’re not likely to dig your way free.