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Will Rust-Belt Catholics Keep Backing Trump?

In a handful of key counties in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, they play an outsized role in who these states elect

(Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Throughout most of the twentieth century, Catholic voters had been a pivotal demographic for Democrats in presidential elections.

Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson could not have been elected without the huge support they received from urban and suburban white ethnic Catholics.

But the loyalty of many Catholic voters began to wane in the late 1960s and they became Nixon Democrats and later, Reagan Democrats. Why did they desert the Democratic Party?

The most succinct explanation was voiced by Ronald Reagan in 1980:

The secret is that when the Left took over the Democratic Party, we took over the Republican Party. We made the Republican Party into the Party of the working people, the family, the neighborhood, the defense of freedom, and yes, the American Flag and the Pledge of Allegiance to one Nation under God. So, you see, the Party that so many of us grew up with still exists except that today it’s called the Republican Party.

Ronald Reagan made it clear, time and again, that he did not leave the Democratic Party, it left him. The takeover of the Democratic Party by extreme leftists, that gave the nation the Great Society social experiments that created a welfare-dependent underclass and pandemic urban crime, drove Reagan and millions of working-class Americans, particularly inner city and suburban ethnic Catholics, into the arms of the Republican Party.

In 1972, Richard Nixon became the first Republican to carry a majority of the Catholic vote, 52%. Ronald Reagan won a plurality (44%) of Catholics in 1980 and 61% in 1984. Fifty-one percent of Catholics voted for George H.W. Bush in 1988.

But, at the tail end of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, Catholic demographics changed. While the Church-going World War II “Greatest Generation” Catholics were dying, many younger baptized Catholics no longer practiced their faith and could care less about Church teachings, particularly on abortion and sex.

A study released this year by the Center for Applied Research, as reported in TheCatholicThing.org., confirmed the decline in observant Catholics: “Between 1970 and 2018, annual figures for Catholic marriages in the United States fell from 426,309 to 143,087; infant baptisms from 1.089 million to 615,119; students in Catholic elementary and secondary schools from 4.4 million to 1.8 million; and elementary and secondary school students in parish religious education from 5.5 million to 2.9 million.”

These findings explain why generic Catholic vote exit polls—which include large subsets of non-practicing Hispanic and White Catholics—have generally gone with the winner:

1992Clinton 44%*

* Plurality

However, while the total number of working-class practicing Catholics has declined, they are still a key voting bloc in the economically-depressed rust-belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Aging Catholics are disproportionately represented in numerous counties within those states because their children and grandchildren have relocated to greener economic pastures in the south and southwestern parts of the nation. Hence, these Catholic voters, who generally cast their ballots according to their Judeo-Christian principles, still matter. And in a closely contested election, they can determine in 2020 who will carry the Electoral College just as they did in 2016.

For instance, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where Catholics are about 35 percent of the voting population, the winners in presidential elections carried the state by narrow margins. (Gore 51%, Kerry 51%, Obama 55% in 2008 and 52% in 2012, Trump 48%). Pennsylvania is closely contested due to its three voting demographics: the liberal cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; central Pennsylvania’s rural NRA country; and the heavily Catholic economically-depressed western portions of the state.

While the major cities are reliably Democratic and central Pennsylvania is reliably Republican, the state’s western portion is a swing vote area. Take, for example, the voting patterns in presidential elections (2000-2016) of western Pennsylvania’s Elk and Cambria counties which are 65% and 55% Catholic, respectively:

Elk County

Bush   7,34754%
Bush  7,82254%
McCain  6,67646%
Romney  7,09957%

Cambria County


These two counties tell an interesting political story. In 2016, voters came out in greater numbers for Trump than for Romney in 2012 or McCain in 2008.

These numbers confirmed the 2012 findings of blue-collar focus group studies by pollster John McLaughlin in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Participants indicated that in 2008 they weren’t excited by McCain and decided to give Obama a shot at fixing the economy.

In 2012, while many were unhappy with Obama, a significant number thought Romney was a plutocrat who didn’t understand them culturally and economically. That November, while Romney carried Elk and Cambria counties, the total votes cast were down. A subset of Catholic voters opposed to Obama but uncomfortable with Romney stayed home.

In 2016, however, these Catholics came out in force and overwhelmingly voted for Trump. Statewide, Donald Trump carried 14 of the top Catholic counties while Romney carried 10, and McCain 8. And the voter turnout for Trump was greater in each county. 

Similarly, Church-going Catholics that came out in Wisconsin and Michigan were responsible for bringing down the Democrat’s “blue wall” in those states. In Wisconsin’s top twenty Catholic counties, Trump’s vote totals were significantly higher than Romney’s.  He carried 18 of the 20 counties versus 13 for Romney.

The results were similar in Michigan.  The increase of white blue-collar voters caused Hillary Clinton to lose Michigan by 11,000 votes out of 4.5 million cast. In the top twenty Catholic Michigan counties, Hillary Clinton’s vote exceeded 50% in only one, Oakland—a traditional Democratic enclave.  Obama had exceeded 50% in nine of those counties in 2008 and 6 of them in 2012. Michigan’s Macomb County, a blue-collar Detroit suburb—which many analysts consider the original bastion of Reagan Democrats—is a microcosm of the Catholic vote.

Macomb County, Michigan

Vote for President



Trump’s vote total in Macomb County was 224,589 versus Romney’s 208,016. Clinton’s vote, 176,238, was down 10% from Obama’s 2012 total of 191,913.

What does this all mean for Trump in 2016?

To be re-elected, Trump must keep together the coalition of Southern, Southwestern, and Midwestern states he carried in 2016. This means he must carry three of the four rust-belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. The fact that the margins of victory in those states were very narrow means every one of those Catholic votes matter.

The bad news for Trump: in the past four years, a portion of those Catholic voters have died. Today, there are precious few Reagan Democrats alive. Of the 16 million people in uniform in 1945, only 300,000 were alive in January 2020. In 2015, that number stood at 939,000. Korean War veterans that trend toward Trump are dying at the rate of more than 700 a day.

The good news for Trump: an EWTN News-Real Clear Politics Opinion Research poll taken in late February, indicated that practicing Catholics, representing about 6% of the electorate, are sticking with Trump. Sixty-three percent of these Catholics approved of Trump and “59% said they are certain they will vote for Trump in 2020; another 8% say there is a good chance they will.”

While Trump has been falling behind in national polls, it appears his base voters in the rust-belt states are still behind him.

In the June Pennsylvania primary—in which neither Trump or Biden faced serious opposition—there was a record turnout. Over 40% cast ballots. Trump received 861,000 votes—94% of the total, while Biden received only 734,000 votes. Analyzing the results, Salena Zito wrote in the New York Post, “Biden, who boasts Scranton as his hometown and has based his national campaign headquarters in Philadelphia, has earned just under 78 percent of his party’s support. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hawaiian Rep. Tulsi Gabbard ate away at his numbers, with Sanders winning nearly 20 percent of the vote even though he has dropped out of the race and urged his supporters to back Biden.”

To keep his base intact and to attract “on the fence” suburban voters, Trump must hope that the coronavirus-driven unemployment in Main Street America (which has seriously hurt his supporters economically) significantly declines and that culture war issues—political rioting, arson and looting, the destruction of cherished landmarks, the defunding of police departments, and surging crime—convinces them to vote again for Trump because he will preserve their American way of life.

And he must crank up the enthusiasm of working-class Catholics and persuade them to come out to the polls in droves for him, not the pro-abortion, pro-same sex marriage, cafeteria Catholic Joe Biden.

If Trump fails to get them out, his lease on the White House will end on January 20, 2021.

George J. Marlin is the author of the American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact. His next book, Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man, will be published in October.

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