MANCHESTER, N.H. — With the 2016 presidential election season taking shape, the Democratic and Republican candidates seeking the White House will be eyeing Catholic voters, a critical swing constituency in many key battleground states.

But appealing to the “Catholic vote” will be challenging, as Catholics’ political opinions run the gamut from pro-life conservatism to social-justice liberalism. The political differences among Catholics also correspond by region, age, class, race, ethnicity, sex and other socio-economic factors.

“All the wrinkles and uniqueness that’s out there in the general electorate is out there in the Catholic electorate as well, just because it’s so big, so diverse, and it’s national,” said Mark Gray, director of CARA Catholic Polls and a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

David Campbell, chairman of the University of Notre Dame’s political science department, told the Register that “mounds of data” show there is no “Catholic vote” per se.

“There hasn’t been one for a generation, and maybe even longer than that,” Campbell said. “But we can talk about Catholic voters, and subsets of the Catholic population, and how they vote.”

Said Campbell, “Is it realistic that any one candidate is going to bring together Catholics and non-Catholics who are far apart on the ideological spectrum? Possibly not.”

The exit polling in the Iowa Caucus on Feb. 1 and the New Hampshire Primary on Feb. 9 did not ask voters for their religious views, so there is no way to know how Catholics voted in those contests. Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas won the Iowa Caucus, while Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Democrat, and Republican Donald Trump prevailed in New Hampshire.

Gray told the Register that other polling has shown that Catholic voters overall reflect what the general electorate considers to be important issues, such as the economy, health care and terrorism, with subgroups of Catholics prioritizing specific issues, such as the right to life and defense of marriage.

“We are so diverse in our viewpoints,” said Charlie Camosy, a moral theologian at Fordham University, who serves as a board member of Democrats for Life of America.

“For every ‘social-justice Catholic’ who will vote for Bernie Sanders, there is a ‘pro-life Catholic’ who will vote for Ted Cruz,” Camosy said. “And then there are Catholics who refuse to compromise on either set of values and really don’t have a good candidate in the race, with the possible exception of John Kasich,” the current governor of Ohio.

“There is a huge amount of variation in the Catholic vote,” said Gray, who added that the presidential candidate who can appeal to the greatest number of Catholics has a good chance to secure the White House. He noted that evangelical Christians overwhelmingly vote Republican, while the growing number of people who do not identify with any religion tend to be reliable Democratic voters.

“If you win the Catholic vote, you have a very good chance of winning the popular vote,” Gray said.

 

Assessing the Candidates

As to which candidates appeal to Catholic voters, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of U.S. adults in mid-January that offers some insights.

According to the survey, 65% of Catholics think Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., would be an “average” or better president, while 60% think the same of Cruz. Trump, the controversial and outspoken business leader, fared poorly with Catholics, with only 43% thinking he would be “average” or better.

“The problem with Trump will be the trust level among Catholics,” said Deal Hudson, publisher and editor of The Christian Review.

“If [Trump] becomes the nominee, his campaign is going to have to go out of its way and will have to do very substantial Catholic outreach, and it’s going to be uphill,” said Hudson, who was the director of Catholic outreach for former President George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns.

On the Democratic side, the Pew poll found that 57% of Catholics said they thought Clinton would be an average or better president, while 52% said the same of Sanders.

Clinton, a former first lady, senator and secretary of state, and her campaign have sought to make inroads into the Catholic community, and those efforts appear to be bearing fruit, with 40% of Catholics in the Pew poll saying that they thought she would make a “good” or “great” president. However, the same poll found almost an equal share — 41% — thinks she would be a “poor” or “terrible” president.

“Her negatives are almost as strong as her positives among Catholics,” Gray said.

Joshua Mercer, the co-founder and political director of CatholicVote.org, told the Register that Clinton has been appealing to Hispanic voters, which accounts for some of her higher numbers with Catholics, and a large number of white Catholic Democrats who voted for her husband, former two-term President Bill Clinton, in the 1990s.

“Hillary is also trying to win over Catholic voters with Irish heritage by emphasizing her diplomatic efforts with Ireland as first lady and later as secretary of state,” said Mercer, who noted that Clinton was inaugurated into the Irish America Hall of Fame last year.

 

Abortion

But, Mercer added, “We think Catholics of all backgrounds — Irish or Hispanic — should recognize that Hillary does not deserve Catholic support because of her steadfast advocacy for abortions up until a baby’s due date.”

Clinton and Sanders both strongly support legalized abortion, which will hinder many pro-life Catholics from voting for them. In his speech following his win in New Hampshire, Sanders spoke of the importance of protecting “the right of a woman to control her own body,” a reference to abortion.

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, told the Register that the Democratic Party’s wholesale support of legalized abortion is “killing” her party, noting that the Democrats’ 188 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives is the lowest amount in more than 60 years.

“People are being pushed out of the party, and they’re becoming independents or voting Republican,” Day said. “We’re in real trouble, but nobody is really recognizing it.”

Hudson told the Register that liberal-leaning Catholic political activists for several presidential election cycles have sought to create a moral equivalency between the life issues and prudential matters such as government spending on social-welfare programs. Pope Francis’ emphasis on climate change is now being used by Catholics on the left, Hudson said.

“They’re using the same seamless-garment strategy, but, this time, trotting out climate change and waving the flag of Pope Francis, while ignoring the differences of settled matters vs. prudential matters,” said Hudson, who contends that the attractiveness and magnetism of a particular candidate leads to high voter turnout, especially among white Catholics.

 

Faith Factor

Regarding Cruz and Rubio, both of whom polled well among Catholics in the Pew survey, Hudson said Rubio, who is Catholic, will need to convince voters that he is not bound by establishment politics, while adding that Cruz, a Southern Baptist, cannot speak to Catholics like he would with evangelicals.

Mercer, of CatholicVote.org, noted that the Pew poll shows that 56% of Americans say religion should have a larger influence on American life, and two-thirds of voters want political leaders to speak more openly about faith and prayer.

“Candidates should open up and talk about how their faith has made them better people and inspired them to be better servants,” Mercer said. “They should also encourage Americans to push back at the secular voices who try to drown us out.”

Said Mercer, “But candidates must make sure that their discussions about faith are authentic and unscripted — and that they remain respectful of those who disagree.”

Brian Fraga writes from

Fall River, Massachusetts.