Trump Has a Catholic Problem. But How Bad Is It?

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Pope Francis's rebuke of Trump's views on immigration may not be the only cause of the mogul's trouble with Catholic voters. But it sure didn't help.
Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images; Franco Origlia/Getty Images

For months the only publicly available breakouts of religious groups in presidential polling usually involved white evangelicals, a crucial demographic for Donald Trump in both the primaries and the general election.

But now comes the Public Religion Research Institute with a more thorough set of religious slicing and dicing, producing a near-screaming headline at the Washington Post: “Donald Trump has a massive Catholic problem.”

Noting that exit-poll data has in recent elections identified the Catholic vote as quite even and something of a bellwether, the Post’s Aaron Blake marveled at the 23-point advantage PRRI’s survey gave Clinton at present, and wondered if this might be a bigger problem for Trump than all the others we keep talking about. Did Trump’s tiff with Pope Francis over immigration policy hurt him more than we realized? Have ancestral white Catholic memories of insults from Protestant nativists been awakened by Trump’s nasty comments about (largely Catholic) Mexican drug runners and rapists?

There may be a little of both of those factors coming into play: Francis’s not-so-subtle rebuke of people with Trump’s views being “not Christian” was unusual to say the least, and American Catholic solicitude for immigrants does indeed have a very long history.

But it’s also worth noting that PRRI’s top-line numbers were a bit outlier-ish (they showed HRC up by 13 points), and also that National Election Study numbers show that Catholics in recent elections lean more toward Democrats (e.g., showing Obama winning the Catholic vote by 14 points in 2008 and 9 points in 2012) than do the less accurate exit polls Blake cites, meaning Trump is already at a disadvantage with that demographic. So it’s not clear that Trump’s standing is as catastrophic as the comparison between this one poll and the exits might suggest.

That said, it is interesting to look at the makeup of Trump’s unusually poor standing among Catholics in the PRRI survey. It shows him losing white Catholics (lately a marginally pro-Republican group) by a 41-44 margin, while losing Latino Catholics (typically a more liberal group when compared to Protestants, who tend to belong to fundamentalist or Pentecostal faith communities) by a catastrophic 13-76 margin. Unless you buy the poorly documented idea that Trump does just fine among Latinos, it should not be surprising that the faith tradition to which a majority of Latino-Americans belong would push the overall preferences of their religious colleagues in a pretty decisive direction away from the mogul. Beyond that, yes, it seems that a relative weakness among white Catholics — whatever its genesis — is keeping Trump from winning the kind of super majorities among palefaces he is relying on to offset his stark unpopularity with people of color.

I hope more attention is paid to this dynamic in surveys undertaken from here on out. I’m curious how the guy who won 82 percent of the vote in the white Catholic stronghold of Staten Island in the New York Republican primary back in April is now struggling with the children of Mother Church.

Trump Has a Catholic Problem. But How Bad Is It?