In politics, momentum is king. Donald Trump has it; Hillary Clinton does not. When Trump wins on November 8th, it will be with electoral votes from states which have not recently been in the Republican column: Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin. Plus he will win Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Ohio – historically competitive states carried twice by Obama.
What these states have in common (besides several being in the formerly industrial Midwest), is they all have an outsized Catholic population: 34% of voters in Pennsylvania, 31% in Wisconsin, 26% in Iowa, Ohio, and Nevada; 23% in Florida. And Donald Trump is poised to perform particularly well among Catholics, for 3 reasons.
Number one is the very pervasive sense of American failure and decline – among all Americans, but felt acutely by Catholics. Pollsters favor the question of whether America is “headed in the right direction” or “off on the wrong track” to measure overall societal satisfaction. We have had a persistently “wrong track” result in polls since the 1990’s, save a short-lived spike of “right direction” in the aftermath of 9-11. Consider the psychological impact of twenty years of dissatisfaction with the performance of our political leadership. Little wonder so many voters are seeking outsider candidates. Were we a Latin American republic, we would have had a coup by now. The economy is widely perceived as benefiting only the rich and well-connected; the moral environment is experienced as deteriorating, which negatively impacts the aspiration of raising a family. Catholics, among others, will increasingly embrace Donald Trump as the nation’s last best hope to arrest this decline, and his theme of “Make America Great Again” is a pitch perfect appeal to voters anxious about where we’re headed.
Number two, a very large number of white voters, many of whom are Catholic, voted in 2008 – mostly for Obama – but stayed home in 2012. These are voters who sought hope and change in 2008 and by 2012 felt they had received neither, but they were unmoved by Mitt Romney. If Donald Trump can draw them back to the polls with his message of social and economic renewal, those states long unavailable to Republicans become competitive. Romney lost Pennsylvania by 284,000 votes, but over 500,000 white voters boycotted the election in 2012; Romney lost Ohio by 100K, 360K prior voters stayed home; he lost Florida by 73,000 while a quarter of a million abstained.
The third reason Donald Trump will outperform among Catholic voters is the quality of his communications. Hillary Clinton, when not criticizing Donald Trump, mostly talks about assuaging the grievances of certain classes of voters. Her message is about satisfying particular interests; Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is about the common good. And Catholics are, in the main, common good voters.
This is the political conversation they want to have. They are concerned about defending the country and the culture, the Church, the family and life. Listen to a Trump speech: before he evens gets to his issue agenda, which includes the restoration of religious liberty and the protection of the unborn, he has invoked themes of sanctity, patriotism, fairness, loyalty, and liberty. It is this diversity of moral themes which leads Jonathan Haidt – academic psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind – to conclude conservatives are inherently more effective than liberals in communicating on matters with a moral content. And these Trumpian themes all resonate well with Catholics, among others.
There is a reassuring quality to the Trump political phenomenon, his storming of the Republican citadel and now march to general election victory. Mrs. Clinton sees in his vote a basket of deplorables. I see something else; I see a majority of voters who choose not to go “gentle into that good night” of American decline, but choose instead to fight back.