In the presidential race against Joe Biden, Catholics have emerged as a swing vote.
While white evangelicals remain a core voting bloc for President Donald Trump, in the 2020 race against Joe Biden white Catholics are expected to be a crucial demographic.
Data indicates that Biden—a lifelong member of the Catholic church—may shift the white Catholic vote away from the Republican leanings it held for the past four presidential elections and make it a true swing vote going forward.
Even small changes among Catholics could affect the electoral outcome, particularly in swing states. In 2016, Donald Trump won Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida by narrow margins of 1 percent to 1.2 percent of the votes cast.
Despite all the chatter around the strong support that Trump received from white Christians and white evangelicals last election, their voting patterns in 2016 were relatively consistent with elections going back to 2008.
Across Christian traditions, white voters have been relatively stable but have slowly drifted toward the Republican Party by 3–4 percentage points in eight years. (Nonwhite Christians, particularly black Protestants, have historically favored the Democratic Party by strong margins and are expected to continue to do so this year.)
For instance, in the 2008 presidential matchup, 78 percent of white evangelicals cast their ballots for Barack Obama’s Republican challenger, John McCain. Trump did just a few points better in 2016, with 81 percent.
The partisan split among white Catholics and white mainline Protestants mostly held steady as well. In both 2008 and 2012, 56 percent of white Catholics voted for the GOP, and that nudged up just slightly to 59 percent in 2016.
For mainline Protestants, the vote in 2008 was nearly evenly split, with John McCain receiving a slim majority of votes (53%). Mitt Romney did slightly better four years later (55%). Trump enjoyed slightly more support from white mainline Protestants in 2016 (58%).
What do these patterns tell us about potential outcomes for 2020? Polling during the spring and summer of this year—during the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic—indicated that President Trump may be in a weaker electoral position this time.Based on weekly survey data collected by Data for Progress, then broken down by Christian traditions, we see white Christian support for the president slipping. Across traditions, slightly fewer Christians say they plan to vote for Trump and slightly more say they plan to vote for Biden than five months ago.
According to the Data for Progress survey, Biden’s share of the evangelical vote hovered around 20 percent in April and May, right in line with Clinton’s share four years ago. Trump’s support was around 70 percent, with about 15 percent of the sample saying that they were undecided or expressing the intention to vote for a third-party candidate.
However, support for Biden edged up during July and August to around a quarter of white evangelicals intending to vote for the Democratic challenger. The most recent data (collected on September 1) shows that Biden has as high as 30 percent of the white evangelical vote, a significant uptick from Clinton’s result in 2016 of just 19 percent.
If the trends hold, it appears likely that Trump may end up receiving 75 percent of the white evangelical vote, or possibly even less if those who are undecided break toward Biden in the last several weeks of the election cycle.