CLEVELAND — It’s a little more than five weeks from Election Day and the campaigns of Democrat Joe Biden and Republican President Donald Trump are making a final push for Catholic votes.
Through online events, phone banks aimed at Catholic-heavy counties and specific digital messages and emails citing each candidate’s appeal to Catholics, the campaigns are ensuring that voters who make up the country’s largest religious group know where Trump and Biden stand on key issues.
The Catholic vote is significant. Catholics make up about 23% of the population.
Current estimates are that upward of 80% of Catholic voters have made up their minds, with the count being evenly split between the two major candidates.
That leaves a minority of Catholic voters up for grabs, according to political observers, who estimated that 10% to 20% of Catholics have not yet made up their minds about which candidate will get their vote.
Even then, it is Catholics in a handful of swing states who are being targeted, said Vincent Stine, adjunct professor of political science at George Washington University.
Key battleground states with significant Catholic populations include Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Stine told Catholic News Service.
Stine said that in nine of the past 10 presidential elections, Catholics have sided with the winner, illustrating how the country’s largest religious group is truly a swing voting bloc, making them of particular interest to the major party campaigns.
That said, the Catholic vote is not monolithic. A survey by the Pew Research Center conducted from July 27 to Aug. 2 shows that 59% of white Catholics planned to vote for Trump and 40% for Biden. Meanwhile, among Hispanics, 65% planned to vote for Biden and 33% for Trump.
Two-thirds of Catholic registered voters are white while about 25% are Hispanic, according to data collected by the Pew in 2018 and 2019.
It’s unlikely that having a candidate who shares their religious beliefs will sway Catholic voters to a great extent. A February 2020 Pew survey found that about 62% of Catholics said it is very important to them to have a president who personally lives a moral and ethical life and that they are not necessarily seeking a president who shares their religious beliefs.
Both major campaigns run operations focusing on outreach to Catholics through initiatives respectively known as Catholics for Trump and Catholics for Biden.
Catholics for Trump was introduced in April. It has six co-chairs: former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; Republican consultant Mary Joe Matalin; Mick Mulvaney, former acting White House chief of staff; Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles; and Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union. The board includes 28 other prominent Catholics.
CNS scheduled interviews with Schlapp three times in late August and early September, but Schlapp did not return calls.
“Catholics for Trump will energize and activate the Catholic community in reelecting President Donald J. Trump by sharing the many successes of the Trump administration,” the group’s mission statement says. “Reelecting President Trump will ensure continued victories in pro-life issues, judicial appointments and religious freedom.”
Catholics for Biden held a kickoff event Sept. 3.
Josh Dickson, national faith engagement director for the Biden campaign, said the outreach to Catholic Americans is focusing on how the former vice president’s Catholic faith aligns with the common good and “their common values.”
As a Catholic, Biden supports legalized abortion. He has said he accepts the Catholic Church’s teaching “in my personal life” but that he refuses to impose his belief on others.
If elected, Biden also plans to seek repeal of the Hyde amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for abortion except when a woman’s life is in danger. Until the 2020 primary season, Biden had supported the amendment.
According to Dickson, Biden “has a comprehensive view when it comes to women’s health” and that he supports expanding access to health care for women. “He has an approach that doesn’t take abortion or any other issue lightly, Dickson said.
In determining who they will support for president, Dickson said he believed, the majority of Catholics are multiissue voters who are concerned about racism, health care, the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and the economy in addition to abortion.
“Catholics in particular are called to this idea of loving our neighbor and working for justice and peace and opportunity for everyone,” he said.
Catholics for Biden has 36 co-chairs, including Carolyn Woo, former president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services; Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, his party’s nominee for vice president in 2016; Victoria Reggie Kennedy, wife of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.
The co-chairs, Dickson said, are planning to do more than lend their name to the campaign and are expected to participate in traditional outreach activities in “getting the message out to as many Catholics as possible that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are the clear moral choice in this election.”
Other efforts with no direct ties to the campaigns also are working to gain the Catholic vote.
Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote, a political action group with no ties to the Catholic Church, has put much of his organization’s energy into turning out voters for Trump.
The organization unveiled a $9.7 million campaign Sept. 15 by releasing a report purporting to “expose” Biden’s “anti-Catholic record and policy agenda.”
It details Biden’s stances on abortion, judicial appointments, the dignity of work, religious freedom, health care, marriage, school choice and immigration, and contrasts them to statements from Catechism of the Catholic Church, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, popes and church documents.
CatholicVote plans to send the 93-page report and a shortened voter guide to up to 5 million voters.
A digital advertising campaign was introduced at the same time in Michigan and Pennsylvania, states that Burch said hold the key to the president’s reelection. Other buys are planned for Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina, primarily around Charlotte, he said.
Burch said CatholicVote is operating under the age-old adage that all politics is local and it is spreading its message to regular Massgoers because they tend to be more conservative and thus are more likely to vote for Trump.
“Our goal is to have Catholics talking to members of their own parish and at a base level making sure they are going to vote,” Burch said. “We want to make sure those who regularly attend Mass, at least were (before the pandemic hit), to make sure they go out to vote.”
Biden has gained support from Catholic outreach efforts through Vote Common Good and a group called Pittsburgh Catholics for Biden, which is independent from the Biden campaign’s Catholic group.
Kevin Hayes, a member of the Pittsburgh group’s steering committee, said the organization is looking to reach as many uncommitted voters as possible. “We feel like the Catholic vote is going to be critical,” he told CNS.
Volunteers from various parishes will discuss Biden’s commitment to his Catholic faith as they contact voters to initiate one-on-one conversations. Among the messages they will share is the importance of reconciliation in a deeply polarized political environment, Hayes said.
Patrick Carolan, director of Catholic organizing for Vote Common Good, has been working since early 2020 on building support for Biden among Catholics. He said the organization recognizes that Catholics hold wide-ranging political views across the political spectrum, but that their message has been one of finding common ground when addressing differences, including views on abortion.
“We should be focused on the ways we can come together, whether you’re pro-choice or pro-life, and decide what we can do to make abortion rare and safe,” Carolan said.
Among other groups supporting Trump’s reelection include the Susan B. Anthony List, whose president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, is a member of the Catholics for Trump advisory board. Since its founding in 1993, SBA List has worked for the election of pro-life women candidates and the passage of pro-life legislation.
In a Sept. 10 online opinion piece for Fox News, Dannenfelser said she did not immediately embrace Trump when he ran for president in 2016 or even after he won, but now after his nearly four years in office, she feels “he has earned the designation he has today: ‘the most pro-life president in history.’“ Among other actions, she cited his efforts to stop tax-payer funding of abortion and to appoint judges “who respect the Constitution and life.”
The window to garner votes is quickly closing, with early voting already underway in some states. On average nationwide, early voting by mail or in person begins in mid-October.