Washington D.C., Aug 30, 2016 / 04:23 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- With some recent election polls showing Hillary Clinton with a large lead over Donald Trump among Catholics, does Trump have a “Catholic problem” as some are saying he does?
“It’s another data point that shows how difficult it’s going to be for Trump to win in November,” Dr. Matthew Green, a politics professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said of the poll numbers. “It’s increasingly looking dire for the Trump campaign.”
However, Dr. Mark Gray of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University cautioned against reading too much into those polls. “For now be wary of claims either candidate has a ‘Catholic problem’,” he wrote in a blog post on the matter. “We have too little data and what we do have presents a mixed picture.”
Recent Washington Post-ABC News poll numbers show Hillary Clinton with a commanding 27-point lead over Trump among Catholics. Other recent numbers — like from the Public Religion Research Institute — show Clinton winning much of the Catholic vote, including the vast majority of Hispanic Catholics.
Pew Research numbers from July showed Clinton with a 16-point lead over Trump among Catholics. Trump actually won the white Catholic vote 50 to 46 percent in that poll, but lost the Hispanic Catholic vote 77 to 16. And in the Washington Post-ABC News poll, Clinton was winning a substantial margin of Catholic voters who were weekly churchgoers — a constituency that is “traditionally Republican-leaning,” Green noted.
However, many election polls are not revealing the religious split of respondents. And of the few polls that are, in one case the numbers wildly fluctuated. While in July, Pew reported that Clinton led Trump by 16 points among Catholics, in August Clinton’s support among Catholics dropped 16 percent. Trump actually won the Catholic vote in that poll of registered voters, 42 percent to Clinton’s 40 percent, with 12 percent voting for third party candidates Gary Johnson and Dr. Jill Stein.
What is to be made of all these numbers? Dr. Gray cautioned that they may not reflect the electorate that turns out at the polls on Election Day. “A majority of Americans see these candidates as unfavorable,” he wrote of both Clinton and Trump. “The 2016 election is not about voting for a candidate as much as it is voting against one. Turnout will be key.”Many people who do not normally vote could show up at the polls in November, he said, and conversely those who normally vote might stay home, disenchanted by the candidates.
Also, most of the election polls aren’t reporting the religion of the respondents, he added, making it impossible to “aggregate” all the election polls and see better where the Catholic support lies. “With nearly all of the exit polls for the primaries excluding a religious affiliation question the data just aren’t out there,” he wrote.
However, if the polls showing Clinton far ahead of Trump among Catholics are correct, it could mean big trouble for Trump, Dr. Green explained. Catholics usually show where the general electorate stands, he said. For instance, according to Pew Research exit polls, Catholics narrowly voted for Al Gore in 2000, when he barely won the popular vote. In 2004, they voted for Bush 52-47 percent, when he won the popular vote 51-48 percent. In 2008 Catholics voted for President Obama 54-45, when he won the popular vote 53-46 percent, and they voted for him again in 2012 50-48 percent, when he won the popular vote by that same margin.
So if Catholics really are supporting Clinton now by a wide margin, and the numbers hold until Election Day, it could suggest that Trump loses the general electorate as well, Green said.
What might be the causes of these numbers among Catholics? It “could be that Trump has done everything from insulting the Pope to talking rather callously about immigration, which matters to a lot of Catholics,” he noted. “Most Catholics are at least aware of the history of anti-Catholicism in this country, and may be somewhat unsettled by some of the rhetoric coming out of the Trump campaign about immigration.”
Trump also hasn’t really reached out to Catholic voters like he has to other voting groups, Green insisted. “He’s doing these appeals not based on Catholicism, Catholic values, or the Church,” Green said. “He’s doing them based on economic issues or fear of immigration.” “So that might happen to pull some Catholics in those areas his way, but it’s a far cry from the George W. Bush strategy where you look for ‘value voters’ and what appeals to them. I don’t get the impression that Trump is particularly interested in that,” he explained.
Catholic voters as a whole are also most concerned about the same issues the general public is concerned with, according to the July Pew numbers. When asked by Pew what issues were “very important” for them in the 2016 election, Catholics answered foremost the economy (84 percent), then terrorism (81 percent), health care (78 percent), and immigration (75 percent). Abortion and marriage were near the bottom of the list in terms of how many Catholics deemed them “very important” issues.
“There are plenty of Catholic voters who are very religious, and religious values and beliefs matter a great deal to them,” Green said. So the decreased interest in social issues like abortion and marriage may reflect a “general” decline of interest in those issues, but it may also simply be a result of “values voters” feeling like they don’t have a real choice between the two candidates, he said.