A new poll about the 2016 presidential race between Hillary and Donald Trump seems to offer two inescapable conclusions about the “Catholic vote” in America.
- First, there’s a stark racial divide running through American Catholic attitudes, with white Catholics almost evenly divided, though offering a narrow edge for Trump, and Hispanics overwhelmingly backing Clinton.
- Second, to the extent a religiously defined segment of the American population is up for grabs, at least in terms of which candidate will capture a majority of its votes, it’s likely white Catholics.
The findings by the Pew Research Center, based on a national survey conducted in mid-to-late June, finds that 56 percent of American Catholics overall back Clinton with 39 percent for Trump. However, white Catholics lean to Trump 50 percent to 46, while Hispanic Catholics are currently breaking to Clinton by a margin of 77 to 16 percent.
The remainder of Catholic respondents said they either didn’t know, or planned to support someone else.
The Pew study reported a 7.9 percent margin of error for its white Catholic findings, meaning that the Trump/Clinton gap easily falls within it.
Only white mainline Protestants are anywhere close to being as evenly divided, breaking 50 to 39 percent for Clinton, but that’s still an 11-point gap as opposed to just four among white Catholics.
Meanwhile, for the other groups considered by the study, the race is effectively over.
- White Evangelicals are backing Trump 78 to 17 percent.
- Black Protestants backing Clinton by a whopping 89 percent to 8.
- Religiously unaffiliated voters are with Clinton by a 67 to 23 percent spread.
“To the extent that we can identify a group of [religiously defined] swing voters, white Catholics are it,” said Greg Smith, Associate Director of Research for the Pew Research Center and one of the authors of the new study.
Catholics represent roughly 20 percent of the adult population in the U.S. and they’re around two-thirds white, making the white Catholic cohort a significant electoral bloc.
Smith cautioned, however, that a group doesn’t have to be “in play” in order for shifts inside it to have significant consequences.
“Trump might lose the ‘nones,’” he said, referring to voters with no religious affiliation, “but if he does better than Bush and Romney, it could make a difference.”
Smith also said that a June 2012 Pew survey found white Catholics backing Republican challenger Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama by just nine points, but in the end the spread in favor of Romney was 19 points, suggesting many changed their minds later in the race.
This time too, there appears to be significant potential volatility. Trump presently has 39 percent Catholic support, but only 19 percent say they back him “strongly.” With Clinton, just 26 percent say they support her “strongly.”
Smith said the sample sizes for the Pew study were not large enough to distinguish among white and Hispanic Catholics in terms of how often members of each group attend Mass, but overall weekly Mass-goers are supporting Clinton 57 to 38 percent.
That’s essentially the same gap as the overall Catholic vote but strikingly different than June 2012, when Romney had a three-point edge among those who go to Mass at least once a week.
In other Catholic results:
- Catholics are somewhat more evenly distributed among the country’s two major political parties. White Catholics make up 18 percent of registered Republicans and 10 percent of Democrats, while Hispanic Catholics compose 7 percent of the Democratic total and 2 percent of Republicans. By way of comparison, white Evangelicals are a robust 35 percent of Republicans and just 8 percent of Democrats, while Black Protestants represent 16 percent of the Democratic total and only 1 percent of Republicans.
- There were few significant differences between Catholics and the general population in terms of which issues they cited as being of greatest concern in the 2016 race, including the economy, terrorism, health care and immigration. However, Catholics were slightly more inclined than all voters, 42 percent to 40, to cite treatment of LGBT people as a concern, and substantially more likely than the 29 percent of white Evangelicals who did so.
- Just 18 percent of Catholics say it has become “more difficult” to be a Catholic in America in recent years, as opposed to almost 70 percent who say it hasn’t changed very much. Meanwhile, 41 percent of Evangelicals say it’s become “more difficult” to be an Evangelical.
- In data not included in the results released on Wednesday, the survey found the same racial divide among Catholics on the question of which candidate voters believe would be better able to deal with immigration. White Catholics say it’s Trump by 52 percent to 41, while Hispanic Catholics answered Clinton by a margin of 74 percent to 19.
“Given how clearly both Pope Francis and the US bishops have expressed positions on the immigration issue, I found that result interesting,” Smith said, suggesting it shows the racial and ethnic contrast among Catholics applies even in areas where there’s been strong advocacy by Church leadership.
In general, the Pew report found the most dramatic religious contrast in attitudes runs between white Evangelicals and religiously unaffiliated Americans, or “nones.”
The former are backing Trump by a 78 to 17 percent margin, apparently belying impressions that Trump is struggling to attract Evangelical support. If anything, the finding suggests that Evangelical support for Trump today is larger than it was for Romney at a comparable stage in 2012.
Roughly a third of Evangelical voters said they “strongly” back Trump’s bid for the presidency.
“Nones,” on the other hand, are breaking 67 to 23 percent for Clinton. Roughly a quarter said they “strongly” back Clinton, as opposed to almost forty percent of “nones” who said the same thing about Barack Obama in 2012.
The survey also found that a declining share of Americans say it’s important for the President to have strong religious beliefs. In 2008 72 percent of Americans felt that way as opposed to 62 percent today, a ten-point drop.
In part, the authors of the study suggested, that may reflect Republicans coming to terms with a nominee who is not seen as having especially strong personal religious convictions.
The Pew Research Center is a non-partisan “fact tank” based in Washington, D.C., which does not take positions on policy issues.