Could the Catholic Vote Cost Biden the Election?

Photo by Jon Tyson

How important is the Catholic vote?  You don’t hear much about it this election cycle, amid the Gaza War, which seems to place the views of Arab-Americans and Jewish Americans front and center in the national discourse – and rightly so.

But the Catholic vote continues to loom large in a country with some 52 million self-professed Catholics – 23% of the population overall, largely dwarfing other religious groups.

Most of the US states with the highest percentage of Catholics are reliably “Blue” states – Rhode Island tops the list with 42%, followed by Massachusetts, New Jersey and New Mexico at 34%, Connecticut at 33%, and New York at 31%.

But that doesn’t mean that most Catholics in those states consistently vote “Blue.”  They don’t.

Catholics represent a “swing” vote – of sorts.  They supported George W. Bush in 2004, then swung to Barack Obama in 2008 – and again in 2012.  In 2016, they swung back heavily to Donald Trump, but in 2020, narrowly favored Joe Biden.  You see the picture:  despite some distinctive issue concerns, especially related to abortion and “family” values, Catholic voting patterns tend, in the end, to reflect the views of the mainstream electorate.

That makes the Catholic vote more of a bellwether vote – rather than a true swing vote.

And that’s where the problem lies for Democrats and Joe Biden this year.  Because according to the latest authoritative polling by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the nation’s leading tracker of religion and its impact on politics, the Catholic vote has swung sharply back to Donald Trump again.

Pew just released the results of its annual survey among 12,000 US adult respondents and found that only 35% of US Catholics held a favorable view of Biden, while 64% held an unfavorable view. Biden’s favorability rating is considerably lower than his rating among all US voters, and his net negative 19% rating is also much higher than the average – by about 5%.  Trump, in comparison, is viewed favorably by 42% of all US Catholics, while 57% hold an unfavorable view.  Overall, that gives Trump a healthy 7% advantage over Biden, a real warning sign to Biden come November.

An earlier Pew survey – from April – also shows a stark tilt toward Trump among Catholics.  Despite his low favorability rating, if the election were held today, Trump would win the allegiance of 55% of Catholics, compared to just 43% for Biden.  That’s roughly the same double-digit advantage Trump enjoyed in 2016 with Hillary Clinton, a complete reversal from 2020.

Trump’s lead among White Catholics – in a head-to-head contest – is even higher, 61%-38%, or 23 points.  Among Hispanic Catholics, he’s pulled even at 47%, compared to Biden’s 49%.  Pew notes that Trump has made even larger gains with Hispanic Catholics than with White Catholics – but both trends, left unchecked, bode poorly for Biden come November.

What accounts for this recent shift?  To a certain extent, it simply parallels trends in the larger electorate, with the economy, inflation, crime and immigration causing Catholics of all stripes to pull back from  Biden.  But culture war issues also figure more prominently with Catholic voters.  Biden has tacked away from his own relatively moderate pro-abortion stance from past years, especially since the Dobbs decision.  He’s also voiced support for abortion rights – even beyond the framework of Roe v. Wade – and has catapulted the issue to the forefront of the Democratic party agenda.  That’s begun setting off alarm bells with many Catholics, even those that support legal abortion rights.

But it’s not just abortion.  Biden has also publicly embraced the rights of gender minorities, not just gays and lesbians, but the entire LGBTQ community, including the transgendered.  Without fully recognizing it, a new Rubicon line of sorts appears to have been crossed.  A slight majority of Catholics, including Hispanic Catholics, are opposed to strict abortion bans, and they do express tolerance and a growing number support for the basic rights of the LGBTQ community, broadly speaking.  But positions that are starkly at odds with Church teachings – and seem out of step with the preservation of more traditional “family” values – are a tougher sell.

Many older Catholics and first-generation Hispanic immigrants are especially leery of the latest Democratic Party stances, fully embraced by Biden, and they’re becoming more open to GOP “conversion.”

Here again, though, it’s not across the board.  Pew detects a sharp variance in attitude toward Trump and Biden based on the intensity of Catholic religious devotion – measured, in part, by the frequency of mass attendance, especially weekly.  Those with the highest mass attendance are far more conservative and GOP-leaning than infrequent mass attendees or “lapsed” Catholics – those with a nominal affiliation who are not especially observant.

Nominal Catholics may not be as hostile to Biden’s lurch leftward on gender issues as those that consider themselves “devout.”  But discomfort with Biden’s policies on gender, on top of discontent with his economic policies, may be pushing a growing number of more devout Catholics toward Trump and the GOP.  In fact, a rising number of Catholics are also registering as Republicans, tilting the partisan balance to the GOP, for the first time in years.

According to Pew, the share of Catholics who are registered Republicans has risen to 52% – compared to 46% in 2020.   A similar shift in partisan voter registration patterns is apparent in the general electorate, but it’s not to the same degree.  And while registering GOP doesn’t necessarily guarantee a vote for Trump, it certainly makes that vote far more likely than before.

All of these trends matter in 2024, but, of course, they matter most in the swing states where the battle for the Electoral College is decided. While none of these swing states make the top 10 Catholic states, quite a few – including Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Minnesota – do fall in the top 15 or 20, with a fifth or more of their population identifying as Catholic.

Moreover, the vast majority of these Catholics, like the voting population overall in these states, is White – which likely gives Trump a distinct edge.

For example, White Catholics make up nearly 90% of the Catholic population in the three key Rust belt states – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan – and weekly (or more) mass attendance) is unusually  high – 33% in Wisconsin and a whopping 40% in Pennsylvania.  Another 37% of Pennsylvania Catholics report less frequent but still regular (mostly once a month) attendance, making the Keystone State one of the most devout Catholic states in the nation.

Of the three, Wisconsin may be the biggest danger for Biden.  A Marquette University poll released just last week found a precipitous drop in Biden’s support among Wisconsin Catholics since 2020 – and indeed, among all religious groups – while his support among non-religious voters has largely held steady.  Ignoring these shifting preferences among Catholics – which the Biden team seems to have done so far – could prove fatal.  The election is less than six months away, and early voting begins as soon as four months in some states.

How many of these conservative drifting Catholics are still persuadable?  In past years, Democratic and Republican candidates alike have demonstrated an extraordinary ability to sway Catholic voters– even late in their campaign.  So, in theory, there’s still hope.

Take 2012.  Obama, who’d crushed John McCain among Catholics in 2008, was running just even with Mitt Romney in June of that year, but by September had opened up a double-digit lead.  His campaign began a concerted effort to woo the Catholic hierarchy and also conducted targeted outreach to Catholic voters, highlighting the Affordable Care Act, while pegging Mitt Romney as a heartless capitalist unconcerned for the poor.  The messaging worked.

In theory, Biden, who’s only the second professed Catholic (after JFK) to serve as US president, should have an advantage.  But Biden faces considerable criticism from the Catholic hierarchy, which, while no ally of Trump’s, seems loath to endorse him.

One prominent Black archbishop recently disparaged Biden as a “cafeteria” Catholic – someone who orders his faith a la carte, selectively picking elements he likes, while discarding others.  Relations with the church hierarchy aren’t likely to improve much without a significant new overture from the White House.  If Biden’s planning one, he’s yet to show it – and time is running out.

Let’s be clear:  Catholics overall do tend to support liberal positions on social policy, as well as immigration and climate change, and many of these voters undoubtedly find Trump’s stances on key issues, as well as his moral character suspect – perhaps, even more so than the general voter.   But Biden’s strong shift to the left on abortion and on culture war issues – combined with his downplaying of inflation and its effects on the poor and the working class – appear to have lost him a significant measure of support among Catholics.

This lost support may not be entirely retrievable – but given the stakes, and how tight the election appears to be, it’s certainly worth a try.

What is Ben doing?  Like Clinton and Obama before him, his primary focus appears to be on the African-American churches – which are overwhelmingly Protestant.  At one level, that makes sense, given the party’s core base of support in the Black community.  And only a very small percentage of African-Americans (9%) identify as Catholic.  But Hispanics, who remain overwhelmingly Catholic,  are a different issue.  So, why not appeal more directly to Hispanic Catholics, based on their faith?

The thinking in the campaign seems to be that Hispanics matter most in the Southwest where Biden is faring especially poorly now, with large single and even double-digit leads for Trump in Nevada and Arizona, for example.  Neither state carries exceptional weight in the electoral college.  From a strategic standpoint, they may be less important than, say, Georgia, which has the largest Black voting population in the country, and a cache of 20 electoral votes.

Biden managed to flip Georgia in 2020 – while he’s currently behind Trump in the polls, it remains a coveted prize.  If Biden decides to make a play for North Carolina, where Democrats may have an opening, a similar tilt toward Black Protestants will likely prevail.

Even now, though, Biden’s appeals to the Black community make little or no mention of religious themes – in sharp contrast to Clinton, and even Obama, who were both closely associated with Black churches – and showed it.  Both men proved adept, when needed, at weaving Scriptural passages and references into their policy stances, rather seamlessly in the case of Clinton.  Clinton and Obama both understood the need to bridge the gap between secular and religious Democrats with appropriately targeted messaging – and it helped them not just with Catholics but all religiously-affiliated voters.

Biden’s campaign so far has failed to appreciate this need.  Instead, amid the strident attacks from the party’s feminist and LGBTQ base on evangelical Christians and pro-life supporters across the board, hid campaign seems to be avoiding faith-based appeals, hoping against hope that simply stigmatizing Trump as a law-breaker and a miscreant – and a Christian “hypocrite” – will be enough to gain the moral edge.

In fact, one might go a step further: there seems to be a deepening aversion among Democrats to dealing with religious themes and messaging at all.  It’s a mistake.

Hostility to right-wing Christians may be understandable.  But antipathy toward religious voters overall – including liberal and even moderately conservative Catholics – threatens to weaken the party, not strengthen it, with key demographics needed to win in November.

Right now, Trump, for all his obvious faults, has a mobilized religious base, and a fervent one.  Biden – outside of Black Protestants – does not.  Democrats cannot afford to position themselves – and be seen by mainstream voters – as a largely secular-oriented party.  If this perception remains unchecked, more religious voters beyond the Christian right – especially Catholics – will find themselves drawn to Trump and the GOP.

In 2001, George W. Bush’s concerted appeals to the Catholic hierarchy – and to Catholic voters – paid off handsomely in his own re-election bid in 2004.  His Democratic opponent John Kerry, though nominally Catholic, like Biden, made no such overtures, and despite his natural advantage, he proved no match for Bush with these voters.

Bottom line:  Like it or not, faith-based Catholics remain a critical part of the Democratic coalition.  In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other swing states, how these Catholics cast their ballots could well decide the party’s fortunes in November.

Most Democrats do seem to be aware of Biden’s religious affiliation.  In an earlier Pew study,  the share of Americans who said  Biden is a “very” or “somewhat” religious person rose from 55% in February 2020 to 64%.  In fact, there has been a particularly pronounced increase in the share of Americans who say Biden is “very” religious (from 9% in February 2020 to 27% today).  But here’s the problem – virtually all of this increase has occurred among Democrats alone.

Biden’s campaign – which seems to be in deep denial about its loss of support among key voter groups – needs to take fresh stock of its standing with Catholics – especially independents and Republican leaners – as it looks for ways to woo back disaffected minorities and working class voters, especially Whites.  It also needs to engage in a major fence-mending campaign with the Catholic hierarchy – to limit public criticism of the kind it’s received in recent months.

Failure to adjust its strategy and messaging with more targeted faith-based appeals to this voter group, especially in the Rust Belt, will only result in a further erosion of Biden’ support, and a likely loss to Trump.

Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at