Next week’s New Hampshire primary will be the first test of Donald Trump’s staying power in a true primary and right now he holds a commanding lead. If the Trumpster holds sway in the Granite State, the Republican primary calendar moves southward to states like South Carolina, where Trump is polling well. But Trump’s momentum and the structure of the GOP primary calendar could be hiding a potential weakness for Trump that may hurt him both in an extended primary fight and in the general election: Catholic voters.
Right now Trump is doing well among less affluent and less educated white voters in the South, Appalachia (West Virginia is his best state) and the Northeast. Catholics are sparse in the first two regions, but heavy in the last, which includes some of the country’s most Catholic states: Rhode Island, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York.
To date Trump is holding up well in these states, especially his home state of New York. But a surging Marco Rubio, a Catholic who is now edging into second place in New Hampshire, poses a potential problem to Trump. The first is drawing away Catholic voters who aren’t too enamored of Trump. According to last week’s Pew Poll on the candidates and religion, Trump is noticeably weak among Catholics. When asked if they thought Trump would be a great or good president, 52% of evangelicals said yes, as did 39% of mainline Protestants. But only 30% of Catholics agreed that Trump would be a good president, which is ten points lower than Hillary Clinton.
Trump does better among white Catholics, with 36% saying he would be good/great. But that’s barely ahead of either Rubio or Cruz at 33% and before the Rubio surge, which presumably will introduce more Catholics to Rubio, who also has the potential to draw at least some of the hispanic Catholic vote that is lost to Trump.
A strong Catholic candidate like Rubio also highlights Trump’s clumsiness when talking about Catholics. When he implied that Ted Cruz couldn’t really be an evangelical because he came from Cuba, which is known as a Catholic country, Trump seemed to be implying that there was something wrong with being a Catholic.
When it comes to religion, Trump seems to be stuck in the past and the glory days of mainline Protestants. He doesn’t seem to realize that the modern face of white Christianity in America is Catholic, the predominant Christian denomination, and that conservative “Evangelical Catholics” have become increasingly important to the Republican coalition. As a result, Trump has bent over backwards to court evangelicals, but not the Republican Catholics that are so critical to the vote in the swing states of the Northeast and Midwest.
CatholicVote.org, a website run by the Fidelis Center, a conservative Catholic organization, has already come out with a scorching “anyone but Trump” anti-endorsement, noting that in addition to being a thrice-married philanderer who “appeared on the cover of Playboy Magazine with a model wearing only his tuxedo jacket,” Trump was:
…a liberal democrat, pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, pro-universal health care, pro-government bailouts, and a financial backer and friend of Hillary Clinton until he decided to run as a Republican last summer.
Oh, and he “cheats at golf,” which I guess counts as a mortal sin to Republicans.
And it doesn’t appear that Trump’s aids are going to be any help in wooing the Catholic vote. A five-year-old tweet surfaced last week from Trump’s campaign spokeswoman Katrina Pierson that demonstrates the campaign’s overall tone-deafness when it comes to Catholics:
Just saw a commercial from Catholic Church stating that Catholic Church was started by Jesus. I bet they believe that too. #sad
— Katrina Pierson (@KatrinaPierson) December 18, 2011
Of course, a strong Trump showing in the first two-thirds of the primary calendar would largely make the Catholic-leaning later states a moot point. But if Ted Cruz manages to peel off enough of the evangelical vote from Trump to keep himself, and Rubio, in the race through April, the Northeast and Midwest will have the final say.
And if Trump does manage to win the GOP nomination, he’ll need to court Catholic voters to win the general election. And at that point I’m sure we’ll be hearing: “Some of my best friends are Catholic.”