Although the Supreme Court has five Catholic justices, along with a sixth (Neil Gorsuch) who was raised Catholic -- and may soon have another if Donald Trump gets his way -- John F. Kennedy is still the only Roman Catholic ever elected president of the United States.
Sixteen years ago, John Kerry sought to become the second. If Kerry had carried the Catholic vote, he probably would have achieved that goal. But George W. Bush won Kerry’s co-religionists by five percentage points, which was likely the difference in the 2004 election.
In 2020, the Democrats have selected another pro-choice Catholic as their nominee. Can Joe Biden outdo John Kerry among Catholics voters? According to a new poll by RealClear Opinion Research in conjunction with EWTN News, the former vice president appears poised to do just that.
In the survey of 1,212 likely voters who identify as Catholic, Biden holds a 12-percentage-point advantage over President Trump. This lead is twice as high as among all voters, as reflected in the RealClearPolitics polling average, and bodes well for the Democratic ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris -- if it lasts another six weeks.
Is there any reason to believe the Democrats’ head start won’t hold up? The short answer is that no one knows, as the humble pie eaten by so many 2016 election analysts reminds us. Perhaps this campaign really is as static as the poll numbers suggest. If so, there is a striking paradox at work in the 2020 election season: Presidential poll numbers are practically the only facet of American civic life that is stable right now. Everything else is highly volatile.
Another key factor to consider when handicapping Catholic voters’ future behavior: They are not all the same.
“A better way to think of it is that we don’t have ‘a Catholic vote,’ we have Catholic votes,” said John Della Volpe, director of polling for RealClear Opinion Research. “The numbers look very different based on the degree to which Catholics practice their faith.”
To flesh out this dynamic, Della Volpe asked a series of questions ranging from their frequency of Mass attendance to how often respondents say the rosary or take communion. His findings dovetail with polls by the Pew Research Center and other in-depth surveys: namely, those Catholics who are most active in parish life are also more politically conservative, trend Republican, and are more likely to support President Trump than less observant Catholics. In this sense, their voting behavior is more akin to white evangelical Protestants than lax Catholics.
In the new RealClear-EWTN survey, the third installment of this joint poll, 51% of active Catholics approve of Trump’s performance in office. By contrast, among those who attend church only about once a month, the president is underwater: Only 42% approve of his job performance, while 58% disapprove. Among registered Catholic voters who seldom or never attend Mass -- cultural, not practicing, Catholics, if you will -- Trump’s job approval rating doesn’t even reach 40%.
A similar chasm within Catholicism exists between Hispanic and Anglo voters. Some 57% of Catholics identify themselves as non-Hispanic whites, while Hispanics make up 36% of the sample (in addition to 3% non-Hispanic blacks and 2% Asians). Overall, Hispanic Catholics support Joe Biden over Donald Trump by a 2-to-1 margin, although this gap narrows considerably among Hispanics who attend Mass at least once a week: Their support for Trump rises to 43%, which is about the same as his support nationally.
If there’s any good news here for Republicans, it’s that the Catholic voters who are most highly motivated to attend church weekly generally are also usually the most committed to voting. In other words, Trump’s Catholic supporters tend to punch above their numerical weight. Another factor that may offer solace to Republicans -- and be a source of concern to Democrats -- came in response to queries about social unrest in America, including specific questions about policing and attacks on religious symbols.
An overwhelming number of Catholics (83% to 12%) expressed angst over vandalism of churches. Large majorities of Catholics also expressed alarm over Bible burnings, expressions of anti-Christian hostility, and destruction of statues of Catholic heroes such as Christopher Columbus and Father Junipero Serra.
In the home stretch of his reelection campaign, Trump has made protecting such monuments -- and by implication, religious freedom -- an integral part of his pitch. This poll suggests he’s on solid ground with a substantial majority of Catholic voters. Likewise, when it comes to “defunding” the police, a progressive push that Trump and most Republicans have portrayed as lunacy, the GOP is in sync with most Catholic voters, who oppose it by a margin of 59%-33%. (Among those Catholics critical of this idea, however, is Joe Biden himself -- irrespective of what some local Democratic mayors and city council members have said and done.)
Another potentially significant finding is that most Catholics report that they are holding their own economically, despite the pandemic lockdown:
From your own perspective, are you better off, worse off, or about the same financially as you were four years ago?
These findings suggest that the appeal made at the Republican convention -- that the Trump administration “built” a strong economy and can do it again after a COVID-19 vaccine is developed -- has traction with Catholic voters. But that’s only half the story. Take a look at the answers to a broader question about this nation’s finances:
From an economic standpoint, do you think the country is better off, worse, or about the same as it was four years ago?
What this suggests is that Catholic voters don’t view America’s economic health through a purely personal prism. To put it in Christian terms, they are their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and they realize that the least among us are hurting. This theme was emphasized repeatedly at the Democrats’ convention. In the same vein, although most Catholic voters are upset over the desecration of religious symbols and other public monuments, that doesn’t mean they reject calls for social justice. Quite the opposite, actually. Asked whether Catholics should “be doing more to heal the divisions we have in America on race,” by a margin of 51%-20% Catholics replied affirmatively (29% were unsure). Interestingly, the percentage among weekly church Catholics who believe they should do more racial healing increased to 62%. Meanwhile, the summer’s social unrest raised the prominence of race relations as an issue of concern by13 percentage points among Catholic voters.
Ultimately, however, this is 2020, a uniquely stressful year beset by a viral pandemic, an ensuing economic lockdown, as well as racial unrest. Areas of interest that have high priority to Catholics in normal times, such as education and immigration policy, have declined in importance. Not even abortion is a top-of-mind issue for most Catholic voters this election cycle, and this includes those who go to Mass weekly and follow church teachings most closely.
Republicans seized on the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to announce their plans of shoehorning a right-to-life jurist onto the high court bench before the November election. The apparent belief of the Trump campaign and Senate Republicans is that this gambit will galvanize their base among evangelical Christians and devout Catholics. But when it comes to Catholics overall, they may be misreading the room. Although it was completed before Ginsburg’s death, RealClear-EWTN survey shows that only 28% of Catholics rate abortion as “a major concern” in the context of the 2020 presidential election – compared to 71% who named coronavirus, the topic that topped the list. Asked specifically about “Supreme Court appointments,” the number was about the same, 31%.
True, the abortion number rises to 40% among Catholics who attend Mass weekly, but it still lags behind several other issues -- and was tied with global warming.
“The issues Catholics considered important and that correlated with their stated voting preferences as we entered 2020 -- health care, the economy, national security and immigration -- have evolved,” noted Della Volpe. “In the final weeks of the campaign, the top three issues are the economy and jobs, coronavirus, and health care.”
In other words, among Roman Catholics, as well as the U.S. electorate at large, the 2020 presidential election is a referendum on the incumbent. And if Catholics are the bellwether they’ve often been, Donald J. Trump has less than six weeks to make up significant ground.
Asked which candidate they trusted more to lead America in dealing with the coronavirus, 52% of Catholics cited Joe Biden to 34% for Donald Trump. Although it may not be too late, that poll question may be the key to the Oval Office. To paraphrase Catholic Democrat James Carville, a colorful Louisianan and blunt-spoken former U.S. Marine who helped shepherd Bill Clinton to victory in 1992 with a laser-like focus on the economy, voters’ focus in 2020 is no mystery: “It’s the pandemic, stupid.”