What Happened to the Catholic Vote in the 2020 Presidential Election?

According to exit polls, the vote seemed to split nearly evenly.

People wait in line Oct. 27 to vote as part of early general voting at St. Dominic Catholic Church in Brooklyn, New York.
People wait in line Oct. 27 to vote as part of early general voting at St. Dominic Catholic Church in Brooklyn, New York. (photo: Sam Aronov / Shutterstock.com)

Catholic voters split almost evenly between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in the election, amid a Democrat effort to sway religious voters troubled by the president’s demeanor and rhetoric and positions on issues like immigration. 

One exit poll showed Biden winning 51% of the Catholic vote, with 47% going to Trump, according to data published by The Washington Post. That would be a reversal of 2016, when Trump beat Hillary Clinton among Catholics, 52% to 45%, according to one analysis of the data. However, a second exit poll for the 2020 election, taken by The Associated Press and Fox News, suggested a closer race for Catholics, with Trump at 50% and Biden with 49%. 

Despite the discrepancies, both exit polls agree, once margins of error are taken into account, the Catholic vote was “a tie,” according to Mark Gray, a pollster at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. 

“Clearly, what we see in the national polls is marginal gains for Biden,” said John White, a political scientist at The Catholic University of America, who was one of the co-chairs of “Catholics for Biden.” 

Brian Burch, president of the pro-Trump Catholic Vote, questioned the validity of the exit polls, noting that the preelection polls showed Biden winning by a much larger margin. However, even assuming the exit polls are correct, Burch said the overall numbers gloss over an important distinction between nominal Catholics and regular Massgoers. 

“The generic Catholic vote is somewhat irrelevant in the sense that … a large portion of the respondents to that exit polling are not practicing or don’t take the faith seriously at all. So in terms of its relevance to the Church, [among] those who are still practicing the faith, Trump won in a landslide yet again,” Burch said, adding that Trump got about 60% of the “practicing Catholic” vote.

Burch said, “Did Joe Biden make some progress? Marginally, if you trust these polls.” 

In his analysis of the Catholic vote, Andy Walworth, chief of content at RealClear Media Group, told EWTN News Nightly that what matters most about the Catholic vote is the division “between those who practice more than once a week and those who do not.” 

“In Pennsylvania you saw that divide pretty starkly. Catholics are about 25% of the vote there, and among practicing Catholics … Trump was up about 40 points. Among those who aren’t practicing, he lost 60% to 35% — so very significant differences.”


Biden’s Catholic Outreach

Biden, the presumptive president-elect, would be the United States’ second Catholic president, after John F. Kennedy. Although Biden has dissented from Catholic teaching on abortion and same-sex civil marriage, Biden often referenced his Catholic roots throughout the 2020 campaign. Biden’s Catholic identity, White said, is “very important” to who he is. He is known to carry his deceased son Beau’s finger rosary with him and also had a rosary with him when U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden. He attended Mass on Election Day and had a private Mass said on the day he gave his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, according to White. 

In his election acceptance speech, Biden alluded to On Eagle’s Wings, a contemporary Catholic hymn composed by composer Father Michael Joncas. 

 “In the last days of the campaign, I’ve been thinking about a hymn that means a lot to me and to my family, particularly my deceased son Beau. It captures the faith that sustains me and which I believe sustains America,” Biden said, before reciting lines from the hymn, which is based on Psalm 91. 

White also credited Biden’s deliberate outreach to Catholic votes — in a marked contrast to past Democratic campaigns. “There was a very active Catholics for Biden group,” White said. “I don’t recall anything like that in 2016. ”

For the past two decades, Catholics have flipped between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, mirroring the overall national vote. In 2000, Gore narrowly won 50% of the Catholic vote, but then Bush beat Kerry, himself a Catholic, with 52% of the Catholic vote in 2004. Obama held a majority of Catholics in both 2008 and 2012, though his lead narrowed to just two points against Mitt Romney.


Support for Trump’s Agenda

Pro-life Catholics fault Biden for breaking with Church teaching on key issues like abortion, which the U.S. bishops’ conference calls the “preeminent issue.” 

White argued there are other issues on the minds of Catholics who backed Biden. “I think the issue this time is there seems to be a broadening of the debate around life issues. So immigration is a life issue; climate is a life issue; dealing with immigrant children is a life issue,” White said. “You can see that debate, and I don’t think that that’s going away. I think that’s going to continue well beyond the election.” 

Burch, however, said Catholic Biden supporters voted for him because of their issues with Trump’s personality, not because they supported Biden’s policies. 

“The broad Trump agenda, which I would just sum up as social conservatism and economic populism, [is] widely popular across the country, evidenced by the down-ballot success of Republicans who ran on the same agenda; and Trump lost at the margins likely among the general public — and part of it was from Catholics, as well — on personality.” 

According to the most recent vote tallies from the AP, Biden overall led with 50.8%, with 77.1 million voters, over Trump’s 47.5% and 72 million votes, as of Nov. 11. At the congressional level, Republicans so far are holding on to the Senate — pending the outcome of two runoff races in Georgia in January — and they actually cut into the Democratic majority in the House by at least five seats. 

Burch said that abortion was particularly important for Catholic Trump voters, describing him as the “most pro-life president since Roe v. Wade.” Many pro-lifers and social conservatives believe that Trump delivered results for them in the appointment of three constitutional originalist justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, including most recently Amy Coney Barrett, a practicing Catholic. 

Trump also made immigration a top national issue, pursuing a policy of enforcing border security and the country’s immigration laws. But many Catholic leaders have criticized Trump’s reductions on refugees and separation of immigrant children and their parents at the border as being inconsistent with Church teaching on welcoming the stranger, respecting human dignity and supporting families. 

Burch questioned the role of an issue like immigration in driving more Catholics to Biden, noting that Trump won 32% of the predominantly Catholic Latino vote, up from 28% four years ago. The president, he noted, did particularly well in some Texas border communities that presumably would be most directly affected by Trump’s immigration policies. 


Swing-State Voters

White said Catholic voters who broke with Trump could have hurt him in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which have large Catholic populations and have been called by media outlets for Biden. 

One-fourth of the voters in Pennsylvania are Catholic, according to The Morning Call newspaper, which described them as the “ultimate swing voters in the ultimate swing state.” A similar share of Wisconsin voters is Catholic, while those in Michigan compromise about 18% of the total population.

While exit polls for Wisconsin and Michigan have not reported on religious affiliation, in Pennsylvania, the state of Biden’s birth, Catholics broke for Trump by 57%, according to The Washington Post.

For Burch, Catholic voters in general didn’t hand Trump losses in the swing states. 

“I don’t think it was the Catholic vote at all. I think the Catholic vote largely — at least it appears to me — held pretty firm,” Burch said, adding that the numbers “didn’t move much” between 2016 and 2020.