There are some officials, however, who said the president’s best shot at making inroads with Catholic voters is to talk up his record on abortion, judicial appointments, criminal justice and immigration.
“Catholic voters, like all other voters, have opinions on issues of immigration and trade, and the more people we have engaging in conversations about the president’s record, the better,” said the senior Trump campaign official.
Recent polling suggests the president could encounter roadblocks in his outreach to Catholic voters if he sticks to his standard stump speech for religious audiences, which is loaded with references to religious freedom, job growth, the judiciary, foreign policy and his ongoing trade negotiations with China. Only one of those subjects (economy and jobs) was ranked among the top 10 issues that Catholics are most concerned about in a December 2019 survey of registered voters by EWTN and RealClearPolitics.
Climate change, race relations, K-12 education and income inequality were all identified by Catholic respondents as higher priorities than religious freedom or Supreme Court appointments — two issues Trump campaign officials and White House allies consistently mentioned when POLITICO asked how the president plans to appeal to Catholic voters.
Furthermore, Trump runs a risk of alienating certain Catholic communities the more he talks about immigration — an issue that is central to his 2020 campaign and particularly fraught within the Catholic church. A fall survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, for example, found that only 39 percent of Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. favor restrictions on immigration, which the current administration has sought to curb drastically. At the same time, 68 percent of white Catholics said they favor such policies.
The obstacles Trump faces with non-white Catholics are part of the reason his campaign’s outreach will be heavily concentrated in the Rust Belt — a region that is both disproportionately Catholic and populated by non-college-educated white voters. Campaign officials claim the steep decline in Catholic support that Hillary Clinton saw across the Northeast and upper Midwest in 2016 is evidence of a cultural shift fueled by resistance to the Democratic party’s progressive agenda. In each of Ohio’s top 15 Catholic counties, for example, support for Clinton either shrunk or remained nearly the same as the support President Barack Obama earned in 2012, according to a POLITICO analysis of exit poll data.
“The nature of the Catholic sensibility — based in both faith and reason — is such that [it] does not lend itself to being ideological and rather lends itself to being persuadable,” Steven Krueger, president of the group Catholic Democrats, told The National Catholic Reporter last March.
In the second half of Trump’s first term, some white Catholics who originally approved of Trump’s performance have indeed been persuaded to question their support. When Trump took office in January 2017, 48 percent of white Catholics viewed him unfavorably. That figure rose to 52 percent in 2019, according to the PRRI survey, which also found a 9-point drop in the president’s approval rating among white Catholics.
Pavone attributed part of the decline to the lack of substantial outreach to Catholic communities since Trump took office, especially compared to the president’s outreach to white evangelical circles. Trump has delivered the commencement address at Liberty University, an evangelical institution; made unscheduled visits to evangelical churches; spoken at evangelical conferences; and maintained an influential evangelical advisory board, from which he promoted televangelist Paula White to a senior White House position last fall. And earlier this month, he gathered with 5,000 evangelical Christians at a bilingual megachurch in Miami for the high-profile roll-out of his campaign’s “Evangelicals for Trump” coalition.
But he also said Catholics who do support the president have been less vocal about their attraction to his campaign than evangelicals — a trend he blamed for making Catholic voters who might be on the fence about Trump feel less comfortable about giving him a closer look or volunteering for his campaign.
“Evangelicals have been very, very forward and unapologetic about their support for the president and part of our role is to encourage our folks to do exactly the same,” he said.
As for Catholic clergy — most of whom are discouraged from making public endorsements of political candidates — Pavone said they, too, should speak up if they support the president. “The neutrality that may have had some application in the past may not apply nowadays.”
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