(RNS) — As President Donald Trump woos Catholics ahead of November’s election, his bad handling of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to working against him, weakening support among a group known for almost always voting for the winner in presidential elections. Certainly, how they vote this November could determine whether Trump gets reelected.
Catholics were so evenly split between the two candidates in 2016 that it’s a matter of dispute whether Hillary Clinton or Trump can claim to have taken the Catholic vote that year.
The media exit poll from the time says Catholics gave 50% of the vote to Trump and 46% to Clinton. This is the poll most frequently cited by the press, since they paid for it. But the authoritative National Election Studies poll indicates that Clinton won the Catholic vote 48% to 45%.
There is some argument that the Catholic vote doesn’t exist per se: Catholics tend to be concerned about the same issues as other Americans of the same social, economic and racial status. Today, COVID-19, the economy, health care and racism are on the minds of all Americans, including Catholics.
When talking about the Catholic vote, too, it is important to distinguish Hispanic and white Catholics. A Pew analysis of the 2016 exit poll data showed white Catholics voted strongly for Trump (60%) while Hispanic Catholics went heavily for Clinton (67%).
But no presidential candidate can afford to ignore Catholics, and in the past year the Trump campaign has made patent efforts to appeal to them. That effort, according to recent Pew Research polls, has been hurt by the administration’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis. Trump at first denied there was a pandemic and then promised a quick end to the crisis. At times he claimed absolute authority to deal with the outbreak, then placed responsibility on others for any problems.
As laid-off workers lost their employer-based health insurance and looked to the government for alternatives during the pandemic, Trump’s attacks on Obamacare looked both heartless and unwise.
In March, according to Pew, 53% of Catholics thought Trump was doing an “excellent” or “good” job in responding to the coronavirus outbreak. By the beginning of May, that had dropped to 43%, with 56% of Catholics saying he is doing only “fair” or “poor” on this job.
Pew shows Trump’s job ratings are tanking among Hispanic Catholics. In May, only 29% thought he was doing an excellent or good job responding to the outbreak, down from 42% in March. Among white Catholics, the drop was from 62 to 55.
We also see greater dissatisfaction among white Catholic women than among white Catholic men on how Trump is handling the pandemic, according to Claire Gecewicz, a research associate at Pew. Women bear most of the burden of caring for sick family members, and they are increasingly concerned about the toll the virus is taking.
In May, roughly 6 in 10 white Catholic men (63%) said Trump has done an “excellent” or “good” job responding to the outbreak, while 37% said Trump’s response has been “only fair” or “poor.”
By comparison, only about half of white Catholic women (48%) said Trump has done an excellent or good job responding to the pandemic, while about as many (52%) said Trump’s response has been only fair or poor.
All of this is bad news for the president.
The May poll took place immediately after a leaked phone recording had New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan praising Trump as the “best (president) in the history of the Catholic Church.” This endorsement did not keep Trump’s ratings among Catholics from falling, proving once again that Catholics pay little attention to their bishops on politics.
White Catholics have been an essential part of Trump’s base and they share many concerns with white evangelicals, but Catholics have never held the president in as high esteem as evangelicals have.
In March, 81% of white evangelicals thought he was doing an excellent or good job handling the outbreak, compared with 62% of white Catholics. By May, white evangelical approval had dropped to 75%, while white Catholics were down to 55%.
On other measures, we see white Catholics less enthusiastic for the president than white evangelicals are. Sixty-four percent of white evangelicals consider Trump “very” or “somewhat” religious, while the number for white Catholics is only 44%. In fact, more than half of white Catholics (55%) think Trump is “not too” or “not at all” religious, according to Pew.
And while 67% of white evangelicals say it is “very” important for the president to stand up for people with their beliefs, according to Pew, only 40% of white Catholics say the same, despite all the efforts by the Catholic bishops to make religious freedom a central political issue.
On every characteristic Pew measured, white Catholics have a less positive view of Trump than do white evangelicals: self-centered (white Catholics 83%, white evangelicals 70%), prejudiced (51%, 35%), intelligent (68%, 83%), fights for what I believe in (66%, 81%), honest (51%, 69%), morally upstanding (48%, 61%) and even-tempered (37%, 49%).
It is difficult to know why there are such differences between white Catholics and white evangelicals, but three things are clear.
Catholicism does not preach a “prosperity gospel,” which is central to Trump’s political theology, whereas for many evangelical churches this is a core message.
Second, though many of them might lean Republican because of the party’s anti-abortion platform, Catholic clergy do not publicly endorse candidates. Evangelical leaders have no compunction campaigning for Trump and other Republicans.
Third, Pope Francis is seen as opposing most of Trump’s positions on climate change, multilateralism, health care, racism, immigrants, refugees and the poor. While Democrats are more likely than Republicans to rate the pope positively, even among Republicans, 71% have a favorable opinion of Francis, according to Pew. This is a higher approval rating than any politician in Washington. Trump’s approval rating is about 41%.
There is no denying that white Catholics are still part of Trump’s base, but it is a mistake to conflate white Catholics with white evangelicals. Keep an eye on Catholic voters if you want to know what will happen in November.