Inside Donald Trump’s Catholic Problem

Experts explain why Clinton could attract far more Catholic voters than Democrats in years past.

FILE - In this Sept. 24, 2015, file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves to the crowd gathered in front of Trump Tower ahead of the arrival of the pope's motorcade for an appearance in New York's Central Park. Trump holds a trademark to use the words “Central Park” on items including furniture, chandeliers and even key chains. Records show his first application came in 1991, when the city’s crime rate was near its height and the park had a less-than-glamorous reputation.
AP Photo/Kevin Hagen
Colin Diersing
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Colin Diersing
Aug. 2, 2016, 8 p.m.

A former Jesuit missionary, an activist pope, and Donald Trump walk into an election cycle. It sounds like the setup to a joke, but the results could be anything but funny for the Republican real-estate mogul.

That’s because Trump has a problem with Catholic voters.

Experts on American Catholics say Democrats have an opportunity to attract religious Catholic voters in a way they have not for decades, thanks in part to an unusual duo of Catholic characters: Tim Kaine, a former Jesuit missionary who kicked off his first rally after joining the Hillary Clinton ticket by saying he’d still be home for Mass the next day, and Pope Francis, who has made issues such as climate change and poverty central to his papacy.

But several experts said Trump should ascribe the majority of the blame for his Catholic problem to one person: himself.

“It seems to me that Donald Trump is the least appealing Republican candidate to serious Catholics in as far back as I can remember,” said John Carr, the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. “This is a very secular, very libertarian, very un-Catholic approach to politics.”

Polling backs up Carr’s theory. Pew Research Center data comparing a June 2016 poll to one from June 2012 (which FiveThirtyEight displayed graphically here) shows Catholics who attend church weekly moving decidedly toward the Democratic camp. While Romney led Obama with those voters by 4 points, Trump trails Clinton by 20 points. Catholics who do not attend church weekly also moved toward Clinton, though less decidedly, while evangelical voters who attend church weekly did not.

In 2012, Catholic voters moved significantly over the course of the election, but the shift thus far is notable given what experts say is a clear disconnect between Trump’s rhetoric and Catholic culture.

Trump’s stance and remarks on immigration could explain much of his challenge with Catholic voters, experts said, and no presidential nominee has won the popular vote without also winning among Catholics, dating to 1972. Catholic voters today are disproportionately Hispanic, and many non-Hispanic white Catholics still view their ancestors’ immigration and ethnic heritage as part of their own identities. That might not jibe well with rhetoric that some view as anti-immigrant.

In a series of 2010 focus groups with Ohio voters designed to differentiate Catholic and protestant views on immigration, researchers found what they dubbed the “Ellis Island vs. Home Depot” distinction. For non-Catholic Christians, immigration conjured images of day-laborers looking for work and touched off concerns about security and law enforcement. Catholic respondents, meanwhile, were more likely to mention their own ancestors’ journeys to the United States, frequently through Ellis Island.

Most Catholics “think of their forbearers as immigrants to America who worked very, very hard,” explained John Portmann, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Catholic Culture in the USA. “So the idea of keeping out Mexicans—almost all of whom are Catholics—doesn’t sit well with even Catholics on the Right.”

Trump’s rhetoric, Carr said, “brings back echoes of ‘No Irish Need Apply.’”

Others say Pope Francis’s focus on social justice could be making religious Catholics more open to Democrats. Stephen Schneck, the director of the Institute for Policy and Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, said a “Pope Francis factor” might be pushing observant Catholics to think more about issues of poverty, social justice, and climate change compared to the social issues where Democrats normally clash with the church.

The Pope himself made a brief appearance in the campaign earlier this year, suggesting Donald Trump was ‘not a Christian’ and knocking his proposal to build a wall. Robert P. Jones, founder of the Public Religion Research Institute and a scholar of religion in American life, noted that the Catholic church hierarchy appearing in the middle of a presidential campaign was something of a reversal from recent history, such as a 2004 controversy where a cardinal threatened to deny John Kerry communion over his stance on abortion.

“Denying communion to Kerry, that was a signal, in many ways a partisan move. … In some ways we’ve got the flip side of that, where the most public thing we have is this conflict from Trump and Pope Francis,” Jones said.

While Trump and the pope provide an unusually promising background for Democrats looking to target Catholic voters, it may fall to Kaine to seal the deal. His long history of work with the Catholic Church could be an asset to the campaign.

“Someone who has had this kind of Jesuit education and took his religion seriously enough to spend a year of his life working on a mission … if you’re a white Catholic brought up in Catholic schools who’s gone to Mass, that’s the kind of life trajectory that would seem authentic and recognizable,” Jones said.

But Kaine’s nascent status as a vice presidential candidate has already illustrated some of the challenges that Democrats will face in courting more religious Catholic voters. In a CNN interview last weekend, Kaine was forced to walk back previous reporting that suggested that he had shifted his position on the Hyde amendment, a provision designed to prevent taxpayer funding of abortion.

The Democratic platform this year contains language calling for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, a potential sticking point with religious Catholic voters. Ultimately, many Catholic voters may end up making a choice in the same way as the rest of the country: picking the lesser of two evils.

“Donald Trump makes it harder for Catholic Republicans, and Tim Kaine makes it easier for Catholic Democrats, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy choice,” Carr said.

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