Catholic voters finally in the spotlight

This article appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

After ignoring Catholic voters for almost the entire election cycle, the media has finally woken up and recognized that they are important. Up until now, the only religious group anyone reported on was evangelicals. How much support they were or were not giving Donald Trump was minutely analyzed, but no one cared how Catholics were voting in primaries.

The media forgot that steadfast support of Republican Catholics was essential to the nominations of Mitt Romney and John McCain. But this year, we don't really know how Catholic Republicans voted in primaries because no one asked them. The exit polls only asked about evangelicals.

It is as if reporters listened to the first half of E.J. Dionne's comment -- "There is no Catholic vote" -- without hearing the second half -- "and it is important." What he meant was that Catholics do not vote as a block, but they can determine the outcome of an election. After all, they make up one quarter of the electorate.

Catholics have voted for the winner in almost every presidential election since 1932. If Democrats lose Catholics, they cannot win the election.

What caught the media's attention was a series of recent polls that actually asked Catholic voters what they thought and for whom were they going to vote.

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A new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) showed Clinton leading Trump by 23 points among Catholics (55 percent to 32 percent). Likewise, a Washington Post-ABC News poll gave Clinton a 27 point lead among Catholics (61 percent to 34 percent).

As Donald would say, this is a "huuuge" lead, especially when one looks at how President Obama did with Catholics four years ago.

Clinton is doing four points better than Obama with all voters, but she is doing 25 points better with Catholic voters in the Post-ABC poll. This is the biggest shift for any demographic group in the poll.

The only group that matches this shift is college-educated white women, whose alienation from Trump has been well covered in the media. My guess is that if pollsters looked at Catholic college-educated white women, the shift would be even greater.

The Catholic vote is not monolithic. Hispanic Catholics have been pushed into the arms of the Democratic Party by anti-immigrant rhetoric from Republican politicians, especially Trump. It is no surprise that Clinton is supported by 76 percent of non-white Catholics (who are mostly Hispanic) in the PRRI poll, with Trump getting only 13 percent.

But this does not fully explain why Trump is doing so much worse than Romney among Catholics. Hispanic Catholics were solidly in the Democratic camp four years ago.

The big difference is among white Catholics, according to the Post-ABC poll, who gave Romney a 19 point lead over Obama but now give Clinton a six point lead. Support for Clinton has been growing among white Catholics who favored Trump over Clinton by 56 to 29 percent back in March but now support her by 51 to 45 percent in the Post-ABC poll

What is responsible for this change?

Most commentators say it is less about liking Hillary as worrying about the Donald. The more they heard him, the more Catholics were turned off. His anti-immigrant rhetoric not only alienated Hispanic Catholics, it also hurt him with white Catholics who realized that most of these immigrants are their Catholic brothers and sisters.

In addition, they remember the stories they heard about the discrimination faced by their parents, grandparents, or great grandparents when they first came to this country.

Finally, like the rest of the country, as the election draws near, Catholics conclude that although Trump is fun to watch, he is not presidential. 

If Clinton wins by a landslide, it will be because she won back white Catholics to the Democratic side. These voters will also be important in the swing districts and swing states that will determine the makeup of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

After ignoring the Catholic vote for more than a year, it is nice to see the media once again take it seriously.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is]

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