Dedicated in 1879, St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City has stood witness to Catholic political influence across three centuries. © Shutterstock

Inside the Catholic Vote

The role of Catholic voters in the 2016 presidential election

Catholic voters have proved to be a key swing vote  in presidential elections over the last three decades. In the 2016 presidential election, the Catholic vote may have been just as decisive, but in a different way than it has been in past elections.

Catholics make up nearly one in four voters in presidential elections, and in every presidential election since 1972, the Catholic vote has mirrored the popular vote. Catholics’ overall preference has changed several times between Democratic and Republican candidates for president. But as Catholic voters have swung, so has the nation. Candidates who win the popular vote also win the Catholic vote.

This long-running symmetry between the Catholic vote and the overall vote came to an end this year. Exit polls showed Donald Trump winning the Catholic vote over Hillary Clinton 54 percent to 46 percent, while Clinton won the popular vote over Trump 48 percent to 46 percent.

Nonetheless, the Catholic vote proved to be decisive in 2016 because of its strategic importance in two states—Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. These two states, along with Ohio and Michigan, gave Trump victories that enabled his unforeseen Electoral College victory.

Over the past half century, Catholics have served as a microcosm of the overall American vote because they have consistently represented mainstream concerns regarding economic and national security. Our surveys indicate that Catholics, like other Americans, have generally made their political choices based on a candidate’s position on issues related to war and peace and terrorism, and family issues of economic security and quality of life, such as jobs and healthcare.

The Catholic vote as a whole has not been tied to the views of the church, according to our surveys over the last five presidential elections. Our 2016 polling maintains this pattern—Catholics remaining solidly in support of women’s reproductive rights, including the right to an abortion.

This year’s survey found that nearly six in 10 (59%) Catholic voters say the views of the Catholic bishops in the United States are not very or not at all important to them when deciding for whom to vote for president. Four in 10 (41%) consider the bishops’ views very or somewhat important.

As politics become more local, more voters separate their political views from church orthodoxy. Sixty percent of Catholic voters say the views of the bishops are not very or not at all important when deciding whom to elect to Congress. Thirty-nine percent say their views are very or somewhat important. In addition, 63 percent state the bishops’ views are not very or not at all important when they make decisions about candidates for state and local offices, with only 36 percent affirming these views are very or somewhat important.

Catholic voters take positions on a number of reproductive rights issues contrary to the Catholic church position in the United States, including abortion, healthcare and the practice of exempting religious hospitals from legal requirements to provide certain services, known as religious refusals. More than six in 10 (63%) Catholic voters strongly or somewhat agree that “it should be legal for a woman to have an abortion in the United States.” Thirty-six percent disagree somewhat or strongly. Majorities of every age, education and income group support legal abortions in the United States. Latino Catholic voters are more likely than whites to want to keep abortion legal. Sixty-seven percent of Latinos support legal abortion, whereas 32 percent oppose it; among whites, 59 percent support this stance and 40 percent oppose. Sixty percent of Catholic voters overall say “deciding to have an abortion can be a morally acceptable position”; 39 percent take the position of the Catholic church that “abortion is morally unacceptable.”

The Catholic vote as a whole has not been tied to the views of the church, according to our surveys over the last five presidential elections. Our 2016 polling maintains this pattern.

Issues of economic security and quality of life, so important to Catholics, were front and center in the four states—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio—that decided the Electoral College vote for Donald Trump; and Catholic voters had an outsize influence in two of the four. While Catholics make up 22 percent of the adult population nationally, in Pennsylvania they comprise 28 percent, and in Wisconsin they are 25 percent of the population—making space for the argument that Catholic voters in these two states played a particularly meaningful role in his victory.

There are many other factors to consider when analyzing the outcome of the 2016 presidential race. Here are three large ones.

First, in 2016, one of the most decisive and unusual phenomena was the voters’ disregard of candidate character issues. In the race for president, change from the political status quo in Washington dominated voter motivations, eclipsing more traditional criteria, such as leadership, knowledge, temperament, agreement on policy issues, empathy and candidate trustworthiness. Exit polls reported that the most important candidate quality to a plurality of voters was that the candidate “can bring about needed change” (39%), compared to those who said the most important quality was that the candidate has the “right experience” (22%), or has “good judgment” (20%) or “cares about people like you” (15%).

Given these priorities, Clinton’s attacks on Trump’s character, readiness and judgment, as well as Trump’s own multiple missteps during the campaign, had little impact. On Election Day, Donald Trump attracted 46 percent of the votes, even though 64 percent of voters believed he is not honest or trustworthy, 63 percent believed he does not have the temperament and 61 percent believed he is not qualified to serve as president.

A second major element to consider: In a year when change drove voter motivation, Clinton personified the status quo. The primary battles against Sen. Bernie Sanders burnished her image as the nonchange candidate. This resulted in Clinton failing to match President Obama’s 2012 support levels among many groups, especially blue-collar white voters and young voters.

The fact that more blue-collar white people voted for Barack Obama than for Hillary Clinton should caution against overemphasizing race as the determinative factor in presidential elections. There is no question that racial prejudice is the deciding factor for some voters, but in more than three decades of research we have found that many white voters holding racial prejudice can still vote for a black candidate if the opposing candidate is less acceptable. In 2012, many white, racially prejudiced voters saw Barack Obama as someone who would better represent their needs than Mitt Romney.

Clinton’s inability to convince voters that she would bring about the change they were seeking resulted in her receiving fewer votes than Obama among men, women, whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, voters under age 45 (especially Millennials under age 30), Protestants and Catholics. She lost the most votes among white voters without a college degree, winning just 28 percent compared to Obama’s 36 percent. The only voter groups in which Clinton outpaced Obama were the well-educated and highest income voters— demographics that could be interpreted as representing the status quo.

The third special characteristic of the 2016 campaign was the late surge for Trump. Presidential campaigns always tighten at the end, but this one fell like an avalanche in late October. According to exit polls, four in 10 voters decided whom to vote for in October and November, with Trump winning late-deciders 48 percent to Clinton’s 40 percent.

The only voter groups in which Clinton outpaced Obama were the well-educated and highest income voters— demographics that could be interpreted as representing the status quo.

Clinton was ahead by a comfortable margin (6 or more points) in most national polls during the first half of September. In our early September national survey of Catholic voters, we found a similar Clinton lead over Trump (46% to 40%).

National polls continuing to stay in the field until late October and early November tended to give an accurate reading of voter intent. The last CNN poll of October 20–23 reported Clinton with 49 percent, Trump 44 percent, Gary Johnson 3 percent, and Jill Stein 2 per percent; the CNN poll of national polls averaged 46 percent for Clinton, 42 percent for Trump, 5 percent Johnson, and 2 percent for Stein. The actual results in the popular vote on Election Day were 48 percent for Clinton, 46 percent Trump, 3 percent for Johnson, and 1 percent for Stein. These results place this national poll well within the margin of error of what actually happened on November 8, 2016—a pretty good result for the nation’s pollsters, though not for Hillary Clinton.

The Catholic vote nationwide did diverge from its usual role as predictor of the popular vote. Critical support for Trump, however, in a couple of Catholic-laden swing states where middle-class fears and frustrations about economic security dominated a desire for change, maintained Catholics’ status as a key group to watch in presidential elections.

John Russonello is a partner in the independent public opinion research and communications firm Belden Russonello Strategists in Washington, DC, and has been conducting research and writing about public opinion for the past 30 years.

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