WASHINGTON – Donald Trump wasn’t the top choice for Roman Catholic Republicans when he first started running. But they started to come around once he secured the nomination.
“We have not yet endorsed his candidacy, but we like a lot of the things he is saying,” said Brian Burch of Catholic Vote, a conservative group not officially associated with the church.
That changed dramatically after the “Access Hollywood” video was released.
“Newly released comments by Donald Trump are disgusting and simply indefensible,” the conservative Catholic group said in a statement.
“Christians should not waste their breath defending them,” Catholic Vote said. “The mere fact that this conversation is occurring in the context of a presidential campaign impoverishes us all. If Donald Trump is unwilling to step aside, the Republican National Committee must act soon out of basic decency and self-preservation.”
Three weeks before Election Day, Trump is single-handedly throwing into doubt a decadeslong shift of white Catholics from the Democratic Party to the Republicans, one that helped fuel Republican gains in Congress during the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014 and is key in several battleground states this year.
White Catholic support in the past few months has been volatile, as each new revelation about Trump or Hillary Clinton creates a dramatic shift in the polls.
At the beginning of October, Trump led Clinton among white Catholics by 56-31 percent, according to a PRRI/Atlantic survey.
But after Trump was caught on tape boasting about sexually assaulting women, his support among white Catholics plummeted in the same survey. Clinton took a 46-42 lead among white Catholics in a poll released Oct. 9, a 15-point swing in one week.
The volatility threatens gains made by Republicans for years.
In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney captured 59 percent of the white Catholic vote, up from the 37 percent those voters had given Republican George H.W. Bush in 1992.
“We came into 2016 knowing that there’s been a huge defection of Catholic voters to the GOP,” said Steven Krueger, the president of the Catholic Democrats, a national organization not affiliated with the Democratic Party.
And Democrats feared that was continuing last spring.
“We saw during the primaries Catholics were forming Trump’s base of support,” Krueger said.
However, he added, “since May or June we’ve seen the white Catholic vote move significantly up and down.”
Conservative Catholics expect the Republican trend to continue, at least among white Catholics who frequently attend Mass.
“The Trump result among mass-attending Catholics will be at least 10 points higher than non-Mass attending,” said Steven Wagner of QEV analytics, a public opinion research firm that works on behalf of conservative Catholic organizations.
Krueger and Wagner identified Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania as three states where the white Catholic vote could be decisive. The electorate in all three states is at least 20 percent Catholic. Wagner said a significant number of white Catholics did not vote in 2012 and could swing the vote in those three states.
“There was a 500,000-vote decline in Pennsylvania, and Romney lost by a quarter million,” Wagner said. “That’s more than enough disaffected voters to deliver Pennsylvania to Trump.”
Wagner said some Catholics could be turned off by Democratic running mate Tim Kaine’s support for abortion rights in spite of his own Catholic faith.
Kaine, a self-professed devout Catholic, defended his position on abortion during the vice presidential debate earlier this month, saying, “On fundamental issues of morality, we should let women make their own decisions.”
Mike Pence, a former Catholic and social conservative, responded by saying, “A society can be judged by how it deals with its most vulnerable, the aged, the infirm, the disabled and the unborn. I believe it with all my heart. And I couldn’t be more proud to be standing with a pro-life candidate in Donald Trump.”
Yet most Catholics, liberal or conservative, are not single-issue abortion voters. Recent polling shows less than 0.5 percent of Americans say abortion is the most important problem facing the country.
Kevin Hayes, a 56-year-old Democratic voter from just outside Pittsburgh, said “it’s always been a struggle” that Catholics like him are often identified as single-issue abortion voters.
“When other Catholics say they are pro-life it’s really anti-abortion,” Hayes said. “I think accessible health care is a pro-life issue and immigration is a pro-life issue. I’m for policies that don’t separate families from one another.”
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