Voters cast their ballots at a polling place inside St. Leo's Catholic Church in Baltimore on Election Day, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Should Trump worry about white Catholic and mainline Protestant votes?

(RNS) — As the 2020 election season heats up, both parties are likely to begin vying for the votes of a crucial group of white, Christian voters.

And no, it’s not white evangelicals.

While white evangelicals have garnered more attention than other faith groups over the past few decades, pollsters and political activists believe white Catholics and mainline Protestants could have an outsized impact in November 2020.

The reason has to do with their location and persuadability. Unlike white evangelicals, whose support for Republican candidates and Trump has become increasingly ironclad, white mainliners and Catholics tend to change their minds about candidates from election to election. Many also live in Rust Belt swing states that Trump won only by narrow margins in 2016.

Trump won about 52 percent of the overall Catholic vote in 2016, according to exit polls aggregated by Pew Research, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 45 percent. Winning among Catholics, who make up the country's largest religious group, was a major achievement, as it reversed a leftward trend that saw President Obama win their votes in 2008 and 2012.

Trump's advantage was driven by a surge of support among white Catholics, 60 percent of whom backed him, the highest margin of any candidate in at least two decades. By contrast, he only won 26 percent of Hispanic Catholics, a growing subset of the faith that leans heavily Democratic.

Steven Krueger, president of the group Catholic Democrats, attributes the swing in white Catholic loyalties to Catholics' unwillingness to be owned completely by either party. “The nature of the Catholic sensibility – based in both faith and reason – is such that does not lend itself to being ideological and rather lends itself to being persuadable,” Krueger said in an email.

That quality, he said, should give Democrats hope that they can win back white Catholics in the future.

Chart by Jack Jenkins for RNS, using PRRI data

Persuading white Catholics is especially important in Rust Belt states that helped hand the president his 2016 Electoral College victory — namely, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. According to the 2010 Religious Congregations and Membership Study, all three states are home to counties with some of the highest densities of Catholic congregations in the country, with some boasting 21 or more.

Several of those counties flipped to Trump in 2016 after backing Democrats in the past.

Recent data from the Public Religion Research Institute's 2018 American Values Survey shows Trump enjoying majority favorability (52 percent) among white Catholics who lack a college degree, an important figure in all three states, where analysts say sizable chunks of the electorate do not attend college.

Assessing the white mainline Protestant vote is a bit trickier. Elesha Coffman, assistant professor of history at Baylor University, explained that the category includes millions of Christians from denominations such as the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church (USA), which harbor significant ideological divisions. Coffman pointed to the UMC's recent debate over same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination as one such example.

Such a large and variegated group can be difficult to poll with precision, and most major exit polls do not break out mainline Protestants as a defined bloc.

She did point to some general consistencies, however.

The mainline's middle- and upper-class Americans tend not to be advocating change, said Coffman, author of "The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline." "The status quo is working pretty well for people who are white, middle class and educated," she noted.

Indeed, PRRI's polling at the time of Trump's 2017 inauguration showed that 57 percent of mainline Protestants approved of the president.

Yet as Trump enters the second half of his term, his numbers with both groups seem less stable. A 2018 PRRI poll found that white Catholics who viewed Trump unfavorably had risen to 52 percent, up slightly from 48 percent in 2017. White mainline Protestants are exhibiting even more dramatic shifts: As of September 2018, 48 percent of them approved of Trump's performance, a drop of 9 percentage points from January 2017.

Chart by Jack Jenkins for RNS, using PRRI data

The back-and-forth among white mainline voters in particular has led some observers to suggest the group may be among partisan America’s last true “swing voters.” The reason, Coffman suggested, may be that Trump simultaneously appeases and offends the demographic, letting its members keep more of their money by lowering taxes while at the same time "violating their church’s sense of social justice, and threatening their institutions,” she said.

The fluctuations in support could also reflect the sustained criticism of the president from both faith groups' leaders.

Several Catholic bishops, for instance, have condemned the administration’s stance on immigration, and Pope Francis himself has feuded with Trump regarding his proposed border wall.

Last year, members of the United Methodist Church attempted to invoke church discipline against then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for carrying out family separations along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives for service at First Presbyterian Church in Muscatine, Iowa, on Jan. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Meanwhile, the National Council of Churches, representing a number of mainline denominations, has repeatedly voiced criticism of the president and his policies.

Paul Sracic, a political science professor at Youngstown State University, suggested in an email that immigration was an issue that could cause Trump trouble among Catholics and mainliners at the ballot box.

“I think the immigration issue may be a problem for religious voters,” he said. “For many voters of faith, religion isn’t just about the ‘thou shalt nots’ but is also about the 'thou shalls.’ And one of the things that you are supposed to do is to ‘love your neighbor.’”

Still, Democrats might not celebrate just yet. Sracic pointed out that Trump has defied expectations before.

“It’s also important, with Trump, to not conflate approval numbers with voting,” Sracic said. “The election of 2020 is going to be a choice between two candidates.”

For her part, Coffman cautioned against drawing a straight line between views held by mainline leadership and those of the laity. She noted ideological divides between the pulpit and the pews have been common throughout American history.

“It’s not safe to assume that what the church leadership cares about is the same as what the laity cares about," she said. "But what the laity actually cares about is a much harder question to get at.”

Regardless, even a lack of clarity about the two groups' political leanings is good news for Trump’s Democratic opponents, especially those who can speak to the religious values of voters.

Democratic presidential hopefuls New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former Maryland Congressman John Delaney and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, all Catholics, have been happy to discuss their faith in public. At least three other hopefuls — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg — hail from mainline Christianity. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sen. Kamala Harris of California have also exhibited a willingness to discuss religious matters.

Former San Antonio Mayor and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro speaks during an event where he announced his decision to seek the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, on Jan. 12, 2019, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

When combined with efforts to bolster support among religious populations that already lean toward Democrats — black Protestants, Jews, Hispanic Catholics and others — the faith angle could pay dividends for Democrats.

But Sracic warned that among working-class religious voters in the Rust Belt, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan “had (a) religious dimension” all its own. His assessment echoes scholars who have noted the influence of Christian nationalism in the 2016 election.

Trump's full-throated opposition to abortion, backed up by his nominees to the Supreme Court, is also a central draw for Catholics and even many mainliners.

“Abortion, particularly late-term abortion, has become the latest issue potentially instilling in religious voters the sense that Democrats are the enemy, and driving them to support any available alternative,” Sracic said.

And for all their ease with God talk on the stump, Democratic candidates are still likely to be cast by conservatives as anti-religion in various ways. Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, recently argued that Harris exhibited “anti-Catholic bigotry” when she asked a judicial nominee about his affiliation with the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal organization.

It's also important to remember that other issues may outweigh religion for many Rust Belt white voters in 2020.

Sracic noted that the closure of General Motors automobile plants in Ohio and elsewhere, along with other economic and social concerns, may be "a real problem for Trump" among white Catholics voters in the region.

Religion, in other words, is only one of many factors influencing voters ahead of the 2020 election — or any election. As Coffman explained, "In 2016, it seemed most Americans were voting their demographic more than their denominational affiliation."


  1. First sentence: ” both parties are likely to begin vying for the votes of a crucial group of white, Christian voters.” Nice racist comment to start an article.

  2. Hmm. Wonder why no Black Evangelicals exist, only the White Evangelicals.

    Oh wait a minute, I forgot. We aren’t **allowed** to exist.

  3. Perhaps defining “mainline Protestant” is a bit trickier than Elesha Coffman thinks.

    “Its membership has been declining over the past several decades; the trend has significantly accelerated in recent years, partly due to breakaway congregations. Average denominational worship attendance dropped to 565,467 in 2017 from 748,774 in 2013.”

    “Membership grew from 1.1 million members in 1925 to a peak of over 3.4 million members in the mid-1960s. Between 1970 and 1990, membership declined from about 3.2 million to about 2.4 million. …. In 1965, there were 880,000 children in Episcopal Sunday School programs. By 2001, the number had declined to 297,000.”

  4. Are there many Hispanic Evangelicals?

  5. Wait! What?! Floyd is Hispanic?!
    That’s sort of a racist question; dont ya think?

  6. Ooohhhh… good one.
    You should probably crawl back to your normal page.

  7. No problem; it’s a reasonable inquiry in this context. I’m not Hispanic, but there are indeed many Hispanic evangelicals. Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is a national-level example.

    But just like us black evangelicals, they have to ride in the back of the Pollster Bus too. Can’t allow them to self-identify as evangelicals.

  8. Sorry, I know you’re not hispanic. I thought you might know about the subject. I don’t hear or read much about them.

  9. This is such a leftist way of looking at things, dividing Americans up into “baskets” to be either attacked or pandered to.

  10. Just think, if there were no polls, no demographic to chase, a politician could just give their spiel. The polls make a liar out of every politician.

  11. That’s what socialism is – the group over the individual. The democrats are very good at placing people in groups and placing a certain value on them.
    Sooner or later you begin to think about yourself (and view the world) from the view of the group instead of from your individual point of view.

  12. A Catholic who votes for Trump in any capacity is not living in the spirit of Jesus as Trump is the epitome of a racist, misogynist, con man, an embarrassment to the word Christian.

  13. +
    Since Trump has been chosen by God to Make America White Again, he has nothing to worry about as long as Falwell, Jr., Graham, White, and the other Godly Men and Women keep doing photo-ops with him.

  14. That is such a stereotypical conservative comment. Would you state spewing the typical group think!

  15. How is it racist to mention the majority demographics of his voter base?

  16. Actually the right wing only has two baskets:

    White Christian Males and Everybody Else.

    With varying degrees of hostility for those in the latter category.

  17. Its not the polls that make Trump a habitual liar. 🙂

  18. Mainstream Protestants include Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, UCC, etc. They may be shrinking somewhat but they still add up to quite a few millions.

  19. Again – referring to a group.
    You are an individual Spuddie.
    Be a man and act like one; just as the founders intended.

    Just an FYI – at the moment of your death; YOU; Spuddie; will stand ALONE – before your Creator. An individual; not part of any group.

  20. Trump also hates religious liberty and women’s rights of conscience.

  21. As I understand it, an Evangelical in the politically-measured-for-voting sense is a person who self identifies as “born again” and who may be affiliated with any of many churches. Some of these people may have come to understand that worshipping Jesus and worshipping Trump are incompatible thought processes or philosophies or world views or public behaviors. Those are the people who MAY be persuadable that being a Christian means you are NOT to widen the wealth divide, diss human rights, ignore the environment, knock all the good “socialism” of public education, public infrastructure and separation of church and state——or support pugnaciousness as being the will of Christ. The Dems, among other things, are to find THOSE people and invite them back to political sense.

  22. Nope – it’s actually the mindset the founders intended; and what separates men from sheep.
    Your willful ignorance allows your liberty to be taken from you.

  23. “If you like your doctor, you can keep him….”

    Barack Hussein Obama – liar in chief.

  24. So you don’t deny what I said, just deflect (on something which was not even a lie)
    Polls don’t make you a habitual liar either. 🙂

  25. That is a ridiculous non-response. We are all referring to groups here. Especially people using canned libertarian nonsense like yourself.

    “Just an FYI – at the moment of your death; YOU; Spuddie; will stand ALONE – before your Creator. An individual; not part of any group.”

    Shorter Parker: “Be nice to me or my invisible skydaddy will punish you”!

  26. We are all part of groups; yet some (democrats/socialists) generally place greater importance on the group instead of themselves.
    This makes sense after all; because when you are part of a group, you don’t need to have individual responsibility.
    Like I said; like socialism.
    You should really be better read on who you really are and the philosophy you follow.

  27. While biting lower lip, “I had nothing to do with that woman….. Monica Lewinski….”

    William Jefferson Clinton- Liar in chief

  28. In a screechy voice:
    “What do you mean… like wiping it clean with a towel?!..”

    Hillary Rodham Clinton- Wanna be liar in chief.


    I crack myself up…

  29. White evangelical support has nothing to do with the values they claim to cherish, and everything to do with the fact the Trump regularly attacks the people they hate. Pointing out Trump’s lies, immorality, or even outright crimes won’t make any difference to that base, as long as he keeps attacking the right targets.

  30. If there were no polls or demographic data politicians would be lost. They’d have to guess as to what the people want except for a few good ones who have their views/values and stick to them. Weather vanes like Mitt Romney would definitely be up the creek.

  31. Leftist? Maybe to someone to the right of Atila the Hun.
    Bible believers vs. everyone else.
    Bible believers vs. liberals.
    God’s own vs dem evillll geyz.
    God’s own vs. DEMONrats.
    Pro-life vs. baby killers.
    Oh yes, and People who say things like “This is such a leftist wy of looking at things”.

  32. Funny statement given that you support the biggest liar of them all.

  33. Yup. That’s how I see it too. Those who constantly spout the typical Fox news sound bites need to start thinking independently like the founders intended.

  34. Deflection and avoidance is the default position of people trying to defend the indefensible.

  35. You place more importance on attacking groups both real and imagined than you do addressing what is relevant to a topic. Groupthink at its clearest.

  36. You are very comfortable in your made up world, aren’t you? Yes, you alone are the independent thinker.

  37. Yes. Very comfortable making my own decisions. You should run along now and see who AOC wants you to be offended by next.

  38. Speaking of groups – the United States House of (American Citizen) Representatives have voted to alliw ILLEGAL immigrants to vote.

    What I have said all along – the democrats intend to import votes to solidify their power in perpetuity.

  39. You’re, uh, lying again. Might want to work on that.
    The House Dems did vote down a pointless Republican amendment that bitched about “illegal immigrant voting,” an imaginary problem. But the HR1 bill did nothing to expand voting rights to noncitizens.
    The question is, are you dumb enough to believe they did that, or dishonest enough to pretend they did that?

  40. “the democrats intend to import votes”

    But you know what will really happen. Thousands of Islamic terrorists will swarm across the border disguised as Hispanic women and children.

  41. From the Washington Times:
    House Democrats voted Friday to defend localities that allow illegal immigrants to vote in their elections, turning back a GOP attempt to discourage the practice.

    The vote marks a stunning reversal from just six months ago, when the chamber — then under GOP control — voted to decry illegal immigrant voting.

    “We are prepared to open up the political process and let all of the people come in,” Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and hero of the civil rights movement, told colleagues as he led opposition to the GOP measure.

  42. That too. Glad you’re following the story line.

  43. Trump doesn’t even know the difference between Protestants and Catholics.

  44. Hey, do me a favor if you could.
    You and I will probably be on the same side of conversation here – which is good.
    That being said; although he’s always wrong, ben is still a good dude.

  45. You may want to familiarize with the history of the use of the word “mainline” in reference to denominations.

    Mainline Protestant churches were those that occupied the status of formal and, later, informal power in American society:
    the colonial America’s “big three”: Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian.

    They were joined by churches of later waves of European immigrants – the German and Dutch Reformed churches, northern European Lutheran churches, and traditions of the expanding frontier, Methodist and the Disciples of Christ.

    The Congregationalists are greatly diminished, the Episcopalians are half the size they were less than forty years ago, and none of them hold the status of formal or informal power in American society.

  46. Perhaps it might be worth researching the topic…..

  47. That’s simply inaccurate. Please read the text of the bill.

  48. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the “bogeyman” changes his outward appearance over the years, but continues to exist…..

  49. HR1 does not give the right to vote to non-citizens.

    The amendment that was voted down, according to Fox News, “would have added language to the “H.R. 1” election
    proposal stating that “allowing illegal immigrants the right to vote devalues the franchise and diminishes the voting power of United States citizens.”

    The amendment was meaningless, since noncitizens cannot vote in any election. There is no language in HR1 that would permit such voting.

  50. Exactly right. It is also interesting that the people who have that special ability often are able to see two bogeymen at the same time. Some of the people who comment on RNS warn us about not only the Hispanic invasion of the US but also the homosexual threat to Western civilization itself.

  51. That’s right. The Washington Times speaks in generalities. The article does not address the content of the amendment and does not state that non-citizens cannot vote in federal or state elections.
    In 11 states, non-residents may vote in municipal elections, if the municipality permits this, but non-residents refers to people who own a second house or a business in a given locality, but do not reside there.

  52. According to Pew. Make-up of US Evangelical Protestants:

    White: 76%
    Black: 6%
    Hispanic: 11%
    Asian: 2%

    14% of blacks are Evangelical Protestants (Pew)

    16% of hispanics are Evangelical Protestants (Wikipedia)

    Side note. When the survey asked questions about how often you pray, how important is god to you, etc. the black responders had significantly higher positive answers than the rest, followed closely by Hispanic with the white folks bringing up the rear.

  53. And these Muslims will join the Democratic Party because the Republican platform is not friendly. They will appear to fit in but then they remove their democratic disguises and bring in their antisemetic, anti-Christian, anti-gay, misogynistic beliefs until the Democratic Party is unrecognizable.

  54. If they do to the Democrat Party what the Trumpites have done to the Republican Party, sane people will have no party to represent them.

  55. Once again, put the doobie down</i?.

  56. I thought we were joking about Islamist terrorists coming from Mexico in disguise.

  57. Is “deflection” the Spuddie word of the month?

  58. That’s probably all that can be done at the moment, at least until your cheese slips the rest of the way off your cracker and the nice men in white suits pay you a visit.

  59. Oh, and the Constitution.

    And rugged individualism.

    And a belief in God and country.

  60. That, of course, will be of no consequence to you.

  61. Actually except for the “anti-Christian” you’re describing the Democratic Party from the Civil War until FDR.

  62. So, you dress as a Hispanic woman?

    We’ve already discovered you post like a child.

  63. No sweat.

    It has zero degree of passing.

    In fact it won’t even get noticed in the Senate.

  64. As to your question, you do both all the time. Why shouldn’t anyone else?

  65. You’re a hoot.

    I hope I get as zany as you if I manage to get that old.

  66. If he has been chosen to Make America White Again, where are you planning on living, Canada or Mexico?

  67. Yes, just a few short weeks ago your bogeyman was a 115 pound 16 year old boy who happened to wear a hat you didn’t like.

  68. Well, that’s certainly what he assures us, loudly and often.

  69. There’s plump old chump (grump? frump?) named Trump
    Whose brain’s a clump of lumps, bumps and stumps in his rump.
    With his numbers in a slump
    He should hump down to the dump
    And jump from the pump into the sump. Thump.

    Hm, 17 “umps” in one limerick, the exact same as the number of syllables in a Japanese haiku, as in —

    Combine arrogance
    With ignorance and — Voila! —
    Pres’dent Donald Trump.

    Is that enough of a hoot for you, Mark/Bob?

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  71. It certainly tells me that 88 is well past your prime.

  72. They still love him. He was autographing Bibles in Alabama. That’s a new one on me.

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