Ryan Burge teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University and is co-founder of Religion in Public. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.
It’s long been established that Donald Trump is supported by a tremendous share of white evangelical Protestants, and a poll from July indicated that three-quarters of them still approve of the job he’s doing. But there’s another religious group of the same size as white evangelicals that may be of even greater consequence to the political future of the country: white Catholics.
When Philip Bump of The Washington Post did a post-mortem shortly after the 2016 election on why Hillary Clinton lost, his analysis indicated that just 80,000 votes in three former Rust Belt states were the difference. Those decisive states were Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all of which contain a tremendous share of Catholic voters, especially in rural areas.
Trump beat Clinton by 25 points among rural white Catholics in Pennsylvania. Compare that to President Barack Obama, who kept the deficit to just 14 points when he won the White House for the first time in 2008. In Wisconsin, Clinton lost by nearly 16 points where Obama had held the gap to only 4 percentage points in that first campaign. In Michigan, Clinton barely matched Obama’s 2008 white Catholic vote.
If the eventual Democratic nominee, perhaps a fellow white Catholic like former Vice President Joe Biden, can narrow Clinton’s losses among white Catholics to Obama’s 2008 levels, the White House will change hands in January of 2021.
The data says that’s going to be an uphill climb.
White Catholics have been abandoning the Democrats en masse over the last four decades. In 1972, fully two-thirds of white Catholics sided with the Democrats, compared with just 21% who aligned with the GOP. By 2018, fewer than 4 in 10 white Catholics said they were Democrats, and 45.2% said that they were Republicans. Whoever wins the Democratic primary will start with a shrinking portion of the white Catholic vote.
An argument could be made that Trump, a deeply disliked president, may give Democrats a larger opening to regain the White House on the back of Catholics in 2020. To test this notion, I assessed white Catholics’ job approval of Trump in 2018 and Obama in 2010 — when both candidates had served two years in office.
The results paint a bleak picture for any Democrat hopeful.
In 2010, more than half of white Catholics strongly disapproved of Obama’s job performance, while just 37.5% had a favorable opinion of him. On the other hand, Trump’s approval in 2018 is much higher, at 58.4% Just 34% of white Catholics strongly disapprove of his job performance so far.
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Source: Religion News Service