ROME – Though exactly how Catholics voted on Tuesday is still among the many uncertainties about the 2020 election, one expert believes small but meaningful shifts among white Catholics, especially in the Rust Belt, may have been enough to cost President Donald Trump a second term.

“I think religion played a big role here, especially among white Catholics, and that may have been enough for Trump to lose,” said Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University who conducts polls on the interaction between religion and politics.

“That might be the difference in the whole game,” Burge said. “Those Catholics might actually be the reason Joe Biden is going to be the president and not Donald Trump.”

Burge spoke to Crux early Thursday morning by phone.

So far, estimates of the Catholic vote have varied widely, with different media organizations offering dramatically different results:

  • Washington Post: Biden 51, Trump 47
  • New York Times: Trump 62, Biden 37
  • NBC: Trump 66, Biden 34
  • Associated Press: Biden 52, Trump 48

Some of those discrepancies, observers say, may be explained by whether a given sample is restricted to white Catholics or includes African Americans and Hispanics as well. Nevertheless, Burge said that’s not the whole picture.

“Exit polls are bad, and they’re really bad this time because of the split between in-person voting and mail-in voting,” Burge said. “How do you exit poll when half your voters didn’t vote on election day, and therefore never exited the polls?”

“Right now, it’s just grabbing random people on the street, essentially, and asking them questions,” he said. “It’s really the media wanting to have a narrative, so these [exit polls] become something else to talk about for 17 hours.”

Burge predicted that as actual vote counts are confirmed, researchers will be able to weigh exit polls against those totals and reach firmer conclusions.

Burge, who describes himself as a mainline Protestant, said the most reliable measure of the Catholic vote so far likely is the Associated Press VoteCast system, because it relies not on exit polls but actual national polling with a large sample size.

At this point, Burge said, his best estimate is that Trump probably lost about 6 to 8 points among white Catholics in comparison to 2016, when he won 59 percent. That would mean Trump and Biden essentially split the white Catholic vote, and that shift may well turn out to have been decisive in key Rust Belt states with large pockets of white Catholic voters such as Wisconsin and Michigan.

In terms of explaining the shift, Burge cited polling prior to the election showing that white Catholics gave Trump lower marks for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, below 50 percent, than white evangelicals at around 65 percent.

Beyond that, Burge pointed to a “push/pull” dynamic driving Catholic votes. The “push” was Trump’s own personal conduct and accusations of corruption, including the impeachment process.

“A lot of moderate Catholics voted for Trump in 2016 thinking, ‘I don’t like Hillary Clinton … he’s an outsider, let’s see what a businessman can do.’ But all this stuff piled up,” he said.

The “pull” was the fact Biden himself is a white Catholic with Rust Belt roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania, who talks credibly about his faith.

“He spoke very authentically about that on the campaign trail,” Burge said. “I think he was a very safe choice for moderate white Catholics.”

One question Burge said it may prove impossible to answer is whether there was any “Pope Francis” effect in driving white Catholic votes. While it’s well-known that Francis and Trump represent contrasting positions on a variety of positions, from immigration and the death penalty to the economy and climate change, Burge said polling data generally doesn’t consider potential papal influence.

“I’ve never really seen polling about that, to be honest with you,” Burge said. “I just don’t think there’s a way you could tease that apart from an empirical perspective.”

“Most American Catholics don’t pay much attention to the goings-on in the Vatican, and anyway, we don’t trust voters to make these causal connections,” he said.

“I’ve spent my entire life trying to figure out what’s going on in someone’s mind when they press a button on a touchscreen on Nov. 3,” Burge said. “It could be they don’t like Trump’s fiscal policies and his tariffs on China, or it could be they just don’t like his hair … we really have no idea.”

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.