Trumping Catholics

(photo: Register Files)

At the end of the two national conventions for the Republicans and Democrats that nominated Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton respectively, one of the questions for those following the presidential campaign from a Catholic perspective was where the Catholic vote was going to go.  The answer – at least for now – is in, and it is not good news for the Trump campaign.

At the start of the Republican convention, Trump was doing extremely well among Evangelicals but struggling with Catholics. As noted back in July, a Pew study found Catholic voters were supporting Clinton by a sizable margin: 56%-39%. Trump was ahead among white Catholics, 50%-46% but traile significantly and unsurprisingly among Hispanic Catholics, 77%-16%.

The findings needed to be qualified by the possible bumps that both candidates typically received from their respective rollouts before the national audience. This certainly held true for both candidates. Hillary Clinton surged to a sizable lead in both national polls and in the all-important swing states. Over the last weeks, however, her polling position has eroded steadily.

According to the Realclearpolitics average, Clinton currently has a 3.9% advantage, within the statistical margin of error. One poll, from the L.A. Times, even has Trump ahead by 3%, and another, by Reuters, has the two in a tie. Regardless, despite weeks of relentless battering by the mainstream media and some missteps, Trump has moved back into a position to make the race competitive. Clinton continues to be hobbled by her scandal-ridden Clinton Foundation, her on-ongoing e-mail troubles, the drama surrounding her chief aide and vice chairwoman of her entire 2016 campaign, Huma Abedin (who has ties to a radical Muslim journal and is embroiled in the tawdry story of her husband, former Congressman Anthony Weiner) and her reluctance to hold a press conference for the better part of a year.  

For his part, Trump has begun to show flashes of the resiliency of his Republican primary run. He weathered the mistakes coming out the convention and has recaptured the essential political high ground of setting the agenda in the 24/7 news cycle. His trip to Mexico captured the national political attention, and he has started navigating the treacherous waters of holding his base of supporters on being tough with immigration while appealing to independents.

All of this means that the assumption back in July of a razor thin election in November may be shaping up to be accurate. If that is the case, then the Catholic vote could really be decisive.   As if on cue, the Washington Post a few days ago published an interesting if not somewhat breathless report, “Donald Trump has a Massive Catholic Problem.” 

It pulls together several polls that all point to genuine difficulties for the Trump campaign with Catholic voters.  He was unable to improve his position with Catholics coming out of the convention and now trails among Catholics by an even larger margin. The Public Religion Research Institute shows him down 23 points, 55%-32%; a Washington Post-ABC News poll has him trailing by 27 points, 61%-34%.

The assumption would logically be that he is struggling among Latino Catholics, much as he is among Latinos in general.  But in reality, Trump is not doing any worse among Latino Catholics than Mitt Romney did in 2012 against Barack Obama. Romney lost Latino Catholics to Obama by 75%-21%. The PRRI study found that Trump is behind among Latino Catholics by a 76%-13% margin. 

The data show that Trump has a surprising problem less with Latinos than white Catholics. In 2012, Mitt Romney won white Catholics by 19 points, 59%-40%, and at the start of the RNC Trump was ahead among them by a slight margin. That seems to be gone. New polling finds that he is now actually trailing among white Catholics by three points, 44%-41%.

The Post’s analysis by Aaron Blake raises a few interesting additional points:

It’s also hard to overstate just how significant Trump’s poor performance among Catholics is. That’s because they comprise about one-quarter of voters in the United States (25 percent in 2012 exit polls) and are about as big a voting bloc as non-whites (28 percent) and independents (29 percent).

While we often look at how Trump is doing worse than Romney among Hispanics, we’re really talking about the difference between Trump taking 45 percent of the vote and 46 percent — or maybe 49.5 percent or 50.5 percent. That’s because Hispanics are only about 10 percent of the electorate, and the GOP’s share of that vote is likely to be between 20 and 35 percent or so.

When talking about Catholics, though, Trump is basically adding 5 to 7 percentage points to Clinton’s overall margin. If 25 percent of the electorate is Catholic, Clinton is currently taking 14 to 15 points worth of that chunk, while Trump is taking 8 or 8.5 points. And this is a group, again, that is usually close to tied.

It is only Labor Day, the time when voters finally start looking seriously at the election. That means good news for Trump in general as he has emerged out of a lost August within definite striking distance of Clinton. And if Clinton’s own troubles continue, Trump will be well positioned to capitalize at the debates. Much is made, of course, about the unprecedented negatives dragging down both candidates. Trump is not popular, but Clinton set a record this last week with her worst rating among Americans. She is still marginally more popular than Trump, but the numbers are a reminder that we are in uncharted waters with his campaign.

Coming up are the first debates. Two disliked candidates – one known for his combative approach to the media the other so risk averse that she avoids the press entirely – will finally be on the same stage. There will be much more to discuss in the weeks ahead, but circle one date in particular: October 4 and the Vice-Presidential debate in Farmville, Virginia. The lapsed Catholic Republican Governor Mike Pence and dissenting Catholic Democrat Senator Tim Kaine will represent their tickets in an unprecedented moment for American Catholics.

So, as we start on the run to Election Day, let’s keep praying and revisit Archbishop Charles Chaput’s wise words of a few weeks ago:

Presidential campaigns typically hit full stride after Labor Day in an election year. But 2016 is a year in which two prominent Catholics — a sitting vice president, and the next vice presidential nominee of his party — both seem to publicly ignore or invent the content of their Catholic faith as they go along. And meanwhile, both candidates for the nation’s top residence, the White House, have astonishing flaws.

This is depressing and liberating at the same time. Depressing, because it’s proof of how polarized the nation has become. Liberating, because for the honest voter, it’s much easier this year to ignore the routine tribal loyalty chants of both the Democratic and Republican camps. I’ve been a registered Independent for a long time and never more happily so than in this election season...

So what are we to do this election cycle as Catholic voters? Note that by “Catholic,” I mean people who take their faith seriously; people who actually believe what the Catholic faith holds to be true; people who place it first in their loyalty, thoughts and actions; people who submit their lives to Jesus Christ, to Scripture and to the guidance of the community of belief we know as the Church.

Anyone else who claims the Catholic label is simply fooling himself or herself — and even more importantly, misleading others.

The American bishops offer valuable counsel in their document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (available from the USCCB), and this year especially, they ask us to pray before we vote. This is hardly “news.” Prayer is always important. In a year when each Catholic voter must choose between deeply flawed options, prayer is essential. And prayer involves more than mumbling a Hail Mary before we pull the voting booth lever for someone we see as the lesser of two evils. Prayer is a conversation, an engagement of the soul with God. It involves listening for God’s voice and educating our consciences.

Have a blessed Labor Day!