If the 2016 election is close, and it’s looking that way, the future of the country may rest on the Roman Catholic vote. Of course, Catholics don’t vote as a bloc. Yet it’s precisely their political diversity that underscores the role of religion on Election Day. Americans typically want presidents of faith, but history shows they don’t reflexively choose candidates from their own place of worship.
Why, then, is the Catholic vote predictive? It’s because Catholics make up 22 percent of the electorate — a similar number to African-Americans and Latinos combined—and have been on the winning side of the popular vote in the last 10 presidential elections. That calculus may have played into Hillary Clinton’s decision to choose a Catholic, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, to join her on the Democratic ticket.
Barack Obama did something similar by selecting Joe Biden in 2008, a move that helped him in states like Pennsylvania (where Biden was raised.) In 2012, Obama beat Mitt Romney by 50 percent to 48 percent in the popular vote. Obama’s margin with Catholics was — wait for it — 50 percent to 48 percent. Still, Catholic voters turned out in large numbers for Romney, whose Mormon faith is viewed by their church as blasphemous, polytheistic and not genuinely Christian. They were less enthusiastic in 2004, when having a Catholic atop the ticket--John Kerry-- was no guarantee of carrying the Catholic vote, which President George W. Bush did by five points.
That’s hardly a surprise. Some Catholics are conservative; others liberal. The swing voters are moderate, though they often opt for the more religious candidate of whatever faith. That would favor Hillary Clinton, a Methodist. Of course, Catholic voters have been defying their church for 40 years by voting for Democrats who support abortion rights. This year the defiance of Rome is in the other party. In February, Pope Francis took the unusual step of commenting directly on a presidential candidate. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” the pontiff said. Donald Trump promptly bit back: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” he said. The pope was attacking Trump’s faith; not his politics. Trump’s faith—he’s a Presbyterian—was brought into question by none other than Trump himself, when he revealed his unfamiliarity with organized religion by saying “I drink my little wine and have my little cracker,” instead of wafer, and referred to a book of the Bible as “two Corinthians” instead of the correct pronunciation: “Second Corinthians.”
No matter. In the weeks after trading barbs with the pope, Trump’s support from Catholic Republicans actually increased, and there was no sign of it eroding after he selected as his running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who was raised Catholic but left the church and became an evangelical Christian.
The nostalgia of these Catholic Trump supporters for a bygone era when America was “great”— is a little selective. Many seem to have forgotten the “No Irish Need Apply” signs that greeted their great-grandparents when they got off the boat from Ireland, or the “dago” and “greaseball” epithets directed against so many Italian-Americans when the WASP majority feared “dangerous” and “trigger-happy” immigrants the way Trump supporters fear Muslims today. Trump’s plan, since downgraded to a “suggestion,” to bar Muslims from entering the country offends large numbers of both Muslims and non-Muslims. But that doesn’t mean he will get none of the Muslim vote, estimated at near 7 percent of the electorate. Jews, a reliably Democratic group comprising about 2 percent of voters, will overwhelmingly vote Clinton.
To win, Trump must carry several recently-blue states like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida —all with large Catholic populations. His best shot is to draw energized white working-class and middle-management Catholics to the polls.
The Democrats’ best bet is to ramp up turnout among Hispanics, who went 70 percent for Obama in 2012—75 percent among Hispanics who are Catholic. While the number of Catholic Hispanics has been falling sharply in recent years, they still make up more than half of all Hispanics. Will Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants as “rapists and criminals,” his bigoted insults to a federal judge, and his insistence that he will build a wall and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, drive up Clinton’s Latino numbers? The rush toward naturalization in many Latino communities would argue yes, though turnout will still be decisive.
Demography is not destiny in American politics. Too many variables get in the way, from the cut-and-thrust of the campaign to the math of the Electoral College. Forecasting how Catholics will break is the same. We’re a long way away from the era when big city bosses like Richard J. Daley in Chicago or Carmen DeSapio in New York could deliver the Catholic vote on a whim. Now it’s a Rubik’s Cube of complex uncertainty.
Jonathan Alter is the author of, most recently, “The Center Holds: Obama And His Enemies”.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.