If the results for white evangelicals are slightly worrisome for the Trump campaign, the polling of white Catholics is a much louder alarm bell.
The president received 59 percent of this constituency in 2016, and in the spring it seemed likely that Trump would repeat that result in his matchup with Biden. In most waves of the survey, the president polled around 50 percent, while Joe Biden’s support was around 40 percent and another 10 percent were undecided or voting for a third party.
The poll conducted in September indicates a sharp shift among white Catholics: Biden and Trump are in a statistical dead heat, with just 3 percent now unsure. Of course, this could just be a statistical aberration, but this shift toward Biden in September appears for both white evangelicals and white Catholics. It’s more dramatic among the Catholics, a jump of nearly 8 percentage points.
With so few undecided voters in the sample, it seems very likely that the white Catholic vote may be closer to 50-50 in 2020, a huge shift from the 18-point margin Trump won in 2016.
The results for white nonevangelical Protestants—comparable to the mainline Protestant data from the earlier elections—seems to show fairly similar results to the 2016 race. Clinton received 41 percent of this voting bloc, and Biden appears to be on track for around the same.
On average, Trump is hovering around 47 percent, while Biden is at 42 percent with another 10 percent undecided. It’s possible that the mainline vote will not deviate much from 2016.
Polling is an inexact science. It’s important to note that data from other polling firms shows that the votes of religious groups in 2020 look almost exactly like they did in 2016. But some state-level polls are reinforcing the trend that white Catholics are slipping away from Trump.
For instance, Marist found that among white Catholics in Pennsylvania, Trump was at 53 percent, while Biden was at 43 percent. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton among that group by 22 percentage points. In a state where white Catholics are a quarter of the vote, a 10-point swing among white Catholics should be enough to switch the state from red to blue.
For Trump to repeat his electoral victory in 2016, he is banking on holding together the coalition of voters that sent him to the White House four years ago. His opponent then did not engage in the level of faith outreach being conducted by the Biden campaign. But while Biden possibly picking up five points among white evangelicals would be noteworthy for observers of religion and politics, it wouldn’t be enough by itself to change the outcome of the election.
The Catholic vote, on the other hand, might. Biden, in part by virtue of his own religious background, may be well positioned to take nearly half of the white Catholic vote in 2020. If that pattern holds, the pathway to 270 electoral votes for the incumbent president becomes nearly impossible. The shift would also represent the most dramatic change in white Christian voting patterns in the last four election cycles.