For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
Editor's Note: This is the first of several daily blog posts on the Republican National Convention.
As Day One of the Republican National Convention moved into prime time here in Cleveland, many of the 15,000 journalists and radio and television broadcasters covering the convention have been reporting on the brief and unsuccessful effort by some anti-Trump delegates to change the nominating rules to allow delegates to change their votes. The much-covered story of reported GOP disunity overshadowed the rather somber first day that focused on issues of national security under the theme of “Make America Safe Again.”
The list of speakers included former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn—but the highlight, of course, was the appearance of Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, who also brought out her not-as-yet nominated husband to introduce her. The elegant but still rather unknown Melania reached out to the delegates in the Quicken Arena with words of praise for her husband, but her real message seemed geared toward widening Trump’s audience. In particular, she seemed to be speaking to women and immigrants, two demographic groups that have yet to warm to the presumptive Republican nominee.
Melania’s brief speech was also a potent reminder that while every nominee seeks to put his or her own stamp on the proceedings at their party’s conventions, the RNC this year is especially showing an all-out focus on Trump and his celebrity family. The unconventional style of Trump throughout the campaign has produced visceral reactions, and the same can be seen even from among the Republican faithful gathered in Cleveland.
Focused officially as it was on national security, night one also brought scant mention of faith issues, and even less reference to the so-called culture wars.
Trump enters this convention in what seems to be a tight race with probable Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton. The realclearpolitics.com average has the two candidates within the statistical margin for error, and in a number of polls, Trump has a lead, including small advantages in some of the key battleground states that ultimately will decide the election.
The Pew Forum released a detailed poll on the state of the race from the standpoint of faith voters, and what it found should give both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton encouragement and concern.
To Trump’s advantage: Pew finds that he is polling ahead of where Mitt Romney was four years ago among Evangelicals, with 78% of Evangelicals giving him their support, an uptick of 5% from 2012 when the absence of many Evangelical votes may have cost Romney (a Mormon) any shot of winning in states such as Ohio and Virginia.
The Evangelical vote during the Republican primary went largely for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, but the majority of Evangelicals have swung to Trump since Cruz departed the race. Pew found, however, that his support is not personally strong with Evangelicals, as most Evangelical voters are more opposed to Hillary Clinton than they are enamored of Trump.
Far more complicated is the Catholic vote. The Pew study found that Catholic voters are supporting Clinton by a sizable margin: 56%-39%. This number, however, has to be qualified. First, Trump is ahead among white Catholics, 50%-46% but trails significantly and unsurprisingly among Hispanic Catholics, 77%-16%.
For context, it’s important to understand the recent historical trends in Catholic voting. A Republican candidate has not carried a majority of Catholics since Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Since then, even during the two elections won by George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, Catholics have voted for a Democrat every time. Barack Obama won Catholics twice, including by a 53-44 margin in 2012.
What does this mean as the Republican National Convention gets under way?
The GOP platform is reliably conservative in its language and positions, with a full-throated defense of marriage and life. Trump’s speakers will talk about these issues, but they are not likely to become the centerpiece of his campaign. In large measure, this is because he apparently feels confident that he will garner the vast majority of pro-life voters, at least among Evangelicals—especially after picking Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a pro-life Tea Party favorite, as his running mate.
As the first night demonstrated, the Trump campaign seems to be building its case not on so-called culture war issues, but on the same message of national security, economic opportunity, law and order and anti-establishment populism that propelled Trump to the nomination in the first place.
In contrast, the Clinton campaign seems to be gearing up to emphasize the culture war issues, attempting to paint Trump and Pence as frightening figures who would launch a dark age for women and curtail abortion and LGBT rights.
Where this makes the conventions most interesting is in the little-discussed Pew finding that Clinton surprisingly leads among Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week, 57%-38%. This is a subset – but an important one—of the Catholic vote that has always gravitated toward the pro-life candidates on both the national and state levels. Trump has not connected with these voters… yet. The apparent decision by the Clinton campaign to highlight a campaign pledge to expand abortion, and the imposition of an even more aggressive LGBT agenda, may drive active Catholics away from the Democratic nominee. In a very tight election, when the so-called “nones” (those who claim no specific religious affiliation) are not enthusiastic about Clinton, even a small swing in the voting population could pay huge dividends for one or another candidate.
This is an unusual election with a host of dramatic storylines and two of the most unpopular candidates in American political history. (Four of every ten voters believe neither would make a good president.) Faithful Catholics may truly have a decisive role in determining its outcome.