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Rustbelt Catholics Voters Put Trump over the Top

In my 2004 book The American Catholic Voter: 200 Years of Political Impact [1], I pointed out that, historically, Catholics have been a pivotal swing vote determining the outcome of numerous national, state, and local elections.

In the 21st-century, however, Catholic demographics have significantly changed. Catholics are no longer a monolithic bloc that casts votes based on the social teachings of the Church. Over 90 percent of Catholic “Greatest Generation” Reagan Democrats have gone on to their heavenly reward and many of their children and grandchildren are no longer practicing Catholics.

As a result, generic exit polls, which include large subsets of non-practicing Hispanic and white Catholics, do not properly reflect the views of Church-going Catholics or measure the impact they have in presidential elections.

Generic Catholic Vote 1972 – 2016

[2]

1972 Nixon 52%
1976 Carter 575
1980 Reagan 47%*
1984 Reagan 61%
1988 Bush 51%
1992 Clinton 44%*
1996 Clinton 54%
2000 Gore 51%
2004 Bush 52%
2008 Obama 55%
2012 Obama 52%
2016 Trump 52%
*Plurality Victory

         Although post-election surveys indicate that Donald Trump carried the generic Catholic vote 52 to 48 percent, the real story this year is about Catholics in the economically depressed Rustbelt states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

In those states, aging churchgoing Catholics are disproportionately represented, because their children and grandchildren have moved to more economically prosperous regions.

I have argued for years that if Rustbelt states are closely contested, the one or two percent difference that practicing Catholics can make would determine a presidential election. And that’s exactly what happened on November 8.

To be elected president, Donald Trump had to carry at least two Rustbelt states. Democrats scoffed at such an outcome, because Ohio had voted Democrat in every election since 2004, Pennsylvania since 1988, Michigan since 1988, and Wisconsin since 1984.

In fact, as the New York Times revealed this week, the Clinton campaign was so confident it would carry Midwestern states, it “ceded the white working-class voters who backed [Bill] Clinton in 1992.” Bill Clinton recommended that Hillary accept an invitation to give the prestigious St. Patrick’s Day speech at Notre Dame University, but the “campaign refused, explaining. . .that white Catholics were not the audience she needed to spend time reaching out to.”

Ceding the white working-class Catholic vote and then calling them irredeemable deplorables were fatal mistakes that cost Mrs. Clinton the election.

Here are the data that prove it:

Ohio Top 15 Catholic Counties

Catholic

%

Gore

2000

%

Kerry

2004

%

Obama

2008

%

Obama

2012

%

Clinton

2016

%

Putnam 63 23 23 33 23 15
Mercer 61 28 24 27 22 16
Logan 56 32 32 36 33 22
Mahoning 39 61 63 62 63 49
Seneca 38 39 41 48 44 31
Lake 36 31 49 49 48 40
Cuyahoga 35 62 67 69 69 65
Erie 28 41 53 56 55 43
Geauga 28 24 39 41 38 35
Shelby 28 33 29 31 26 18
Hamilton 27 35 47 53 52 52
Lorain 26 53 56 58 56 47
Auglaize 26 21 26 29 25 17
Lucas 25 58 60 65 64 56
Huron 25 29 41 47 44 29

         In the twenty-first century, Ohio has been a key swing state – and Catholics have made the difference. In 2000, George W. Bush carried Ohio with 50 percent and a plurality of 166,000 out of a total vote of 4.7 million. He received 50 percent of the generic Catholic vote versus 47 percent for Gore.

         Four years later, Bush beat John Kerry, a nominal Catholic, 50.8 to 48.7 percent. His plurality was 118,000 votes. Ohio Catholics saved the state for Bush, 55 – 44 percent in his favor.

         When the Great Recession hit in 2007, Ohio’s economy was seriously hurt. In November 2008 unemployment was 7.2 percent, the highest in sixteen years. Out of a total of 5,698,260 votes cast, Obama narrowly won with 2,933,388 to McCain’s 2,674,491.

         In 2008 and 2012, while the generic Catholic vote did break for McCain (52 percent) and Romney (55 percent), Obama did well in the top fifteen Catholic counties, carrying six of them. Obama even carried very Republican and Catholic Hamilton County (the Cincinnati area), the turf of former Republican House Speaker John Boehner. The last Democrat to carry Hamilton County was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

         How does one explain Obama losing the Catholic vote statewide and still doing well in Catholic counties? Many working class Catholics who didn’t like McCain and Romney and couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Obama stayed home in 2008 and 2012. While Ohio’s voter registration was up, the turnout in the top Catholic counties in both elections was basically flat versus 2004. Even in the Democratic stronghold, Cuyahoga (Cleveland), the total was actually down 8,000 votes.

         The results in 2016 were very different. Trump carried Ohio with 52 percent, precisely because working class Catholics came out in force. Clinton beat Trump in only three of the top fifteen Catholic counties, and her percentage of the vote in the other twelve counties was significantly lower than Obama’s.

         In Mahoning County, which includes Youngstown and has had deep blue-collar Democratic roots, Clinton received 49 percent, beating Trump by only 3,500 votes. Four years earlier, Obama took 63 percent and his margin of victory was 35,000.

Pennsylvania Top 20 Catholic Counties

County Catholic

%

Gore

2000

%

Kerry

2004

%

Obama

2008

%

Obama

2012

%

Clinton

2016

%

Elk 65 42 45 51 41 26
Cambria 55 50 51 49 40 29
Allegheny 50 57 57 57 57 56
Lackawanna 50 60 56 63 63 50
Delaware 49 54 57 60 60 59
Bucks 44 50 51 54 50 48
Luzerne 42 52 51 54 52 39
Schuylkill 42 45 45 45 42 27
Erie 37 53 54 59 57 47
Northampton 36 51 50 55 52 46
Westmoreland 36 46 43 41 38 32
Lawrence 35 52 49 47 45 35
Montgomery 35 53 56 60 57 59
Washington 35 53 50 47 43 35
Carbon 34 50 51 50 45 31
Wayne 33 36 37 43 39 29
Chester 32 44 47 54 49 53
Philadelphia 32 80 80 83 85 82
Beaver 30 53 51 48 45 38
Butler 30 35 35 36 39 29

In every presidential election campaign, Pennsylvania has been difficult to call because of its diverse voters. There are three demographics, each with a different worldview. There are the very liberal cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and their surrounding suburban counties. Next is central Pennsylvania’s rural NRA country whose populace is leery of the Democratic Party’s promise of government largesse. Finally, there’s the economically depressed western portion of the state, predominantly older, socially conservative, and Catholic.

That breakdown has caused Republicans to make a play for Pennsylvania in recent presidential elections. But between 1992 and 2012, they always fell short.

George W. Bush received 46 percent in 2000 and 48 percent in 2004. McCain fell short by 10 percentage points and Romney by 4 percent.

Who's laughing now? [3]
Who’s laughing now?

This year was different. Catholics came out in the old coal and steel towns in western Pennsylvania. And it appears that a sub-set of country-club Catholics in the affluent suburbs outside of Philadelphia overstated their support for Clinton to pollsters. She carried Chester and Montgomery counties, but her vote totals were down versus Obama in 2012; and she lost Bucks County, which Gore, Kerry, and Obama easily carried.

In 2012, Obama won twelve of the top twenty Catholic counties; Clinton carried just six, and her totals in the Catholic counties she lost were well below Obama’s.

In Philadelphia, a Democratic bastion, Clinton’s numbers were down compared to Obama’s due to a strong turnout in South Philly, the old Italian neighborhood, and a decline in African-American turnout. Interestingly, Clinton carried Delaware County – the wealthiest Catholic county, while Trump carried the top two poorest Catholic counties – Cambria and Elk.

Pennsylvania Catholics came out in force for the first time in decades and gave Trump his 1 percent margin of victory.

Michigan Top 20 Catholic Counties

Catholic

%

Gore

2000

%

Kerry

2004

%

Obama

2008

%

Obama

2012

%

Clinton

2016

%

Delta 53 46 49 52 46 35
Dickinson 53 43 42 45 39 30
Menominee 44 44 47 54 48 33
Alpena 44 50 49 51 47 33
Huron 41 43 44 48 42 29
Presque 38 46 46 50 45 33
Bay 36 55 54 57 52 41
Iron 36 49 49 50 45 34
Alger 32 35 50 53 48 37
Gogebic 32 49 52 58 53 40
Ostego 31 38 38 45 39 28
Macomb 31 50 49 53 51 42
Marquette 30 53 54 59 56 49
Baraga 28 41 45 47 45 33
Houghton 27 40 42 47 44 38
Monroe 27 51 49 51 50 36
Manistee 26 49 49 56 52 39
Clinton 25 42 41 50 46 41
Oakland 25 49 50 56 53 52
St. Clair 25 48 45 50 45 31

Michigan’s economy has been in serious decline in recent decades. In the automobile industry, costly union contracts and management’s failure to implement corporate strategies to fend off foreign competition have resulted in major downsizing.

Nevertheless, despite Michigan being the hardest-hit state economically during the Great Recession, blue-collar Catholics, many of whom are churchgoers, continued to vote along cultural lines.

One Michigan area that is a microcosm of the Catholic vote is Macomb County. As the following chart shows, this heavily Catholic, blue-collar Detroit suburb of 700,000 deserted their party and became “Reagan Democrats.”

Macomb County, Michigan
Vote for President
1980-2016

  Republican Democrat Independent
1980 51.9% 40.4% 7.7%
1984 66.2% 33.3%
1988 60.3% 38.8%
1992 42.3% 37.4% 19.5%
1996 39.4% 49.5% 9.5%
2000 47.5% 50.0%
2004 50.8% 49.2%
2008 45.6% 54.4%
2012 53% 47%
2016 54% 42%

Democrats have carried the state three times since 1988, in 2004 John Kerry received over 50 percent of the vote in only three of the top twenty Catholic counties. Obama exceeded 50 percent in 9 of those counties in 2008 and 6 of them in 2012. This year, Hillary Clinton exceeded 50 percent in only one: Oakland, which is a traditional Democratic enclave and 56 percent African-American.

Trump easily carried Macomb County (56 percent). His vote total was 224,589 versus Romney’s 208,016 in 2012. Clinton’s vote, 176,238, was down about 10 percent from Obama’s previous total of 191,913.

The increase of white blue-collar Catholic voters (and a decrease in African-American turnout) caused Mrs. Clinton to lose Michigan by 11,000 votes out of 4.5 million cast.

Wisconsin Top 31 Catholic Counties

Catholic

%

Gore

2000

%

Kerry

2004

%

Obama

2008

%

Obama

2012

%

Clinton

2016

%

Menominee 66 77 62 67 86 78
Kewaunee 57 46 46 55 46 33
Grant 56 49 51 61 56 42
Manitowoc 52 45 47 53 48 36
Brown 52 46 45 54 49 42
Outagamie 52 43 45 55 48 40
Portage 48 53 56 63 56 49
Lafayette 44 51 52 60 57 43
Taylor 43 36 40 48 40 25
Langlade 41 43 43 50 43 32
Wood 40 45 47 56 48 38
Marinette 39 44 46 53 48 31
Ozaukee 39 32 33 39 34 38
Green Lake 38 36 35 42 39 29
Ashland 37 55 63 68 64 52
Door 37 43 48 58 53 46
Marathon 37 45 47 53 46 38
Washington 37 29 29 35 29 27
Waukesha 37 32 32 37 44 33
Fond du Lac 36 39 36 45 42 34
Oneida 36 44 47 54 48 39
Racine 35 47 47 53 51 45
Calumet 34 41 41 50 44 36
Crawford 34 54 55 63 59 45
Pepin 34 51 54 56 51 36
Iowa 33 55 57 67 65 55
Clark 32 42 46 53 45 31
Kenosha 30 51 52 58 56 47
LaCrosse 30 51 53 61 58 51
Dane 28 61 66 73 71 71
Milwaukee 28 58 62 67 68 66

         For over a century, the largest bloc of Wisconsin voters has been Catholic. Today they are about 33 percent of the electorate. Lutherans come in second at 30 percent.

         Historically, Catholic voters in Wisconsin have walked a political tightrope. They have been isolationists in foreign policy, staunchly anti-Communist, slightly to the right on social and fiscal issues, and slightly to the left on welfare.

         This mixture of views may explain why Catholic, pro-life, fiscal conservative Paul Ryan won his congressional district in 2008 with 64 percent and in 2012 (while simultaneously running for vice president) received 55 percent of the vote while Obama received 51 percent in 2008 and 47 percent in 2012.

         In 2008, Catholics came out and voted for Obama. He carried 24 of the top 31 Catholic Counties. Four years later that number dropped to fourteen. This year, Clinton received over 50 percent of the vote in only five of those counties.

         And as Catholics came out in force for Trump, African-Americans were less enthusiastic about Clinton, and many stayed home. But white blue-collar voters, who had stayed home four years earlier, came out in significant numbers this time.

         Indeed, that Wisconsin went for Trump with 50.4 percent of the vote was the biggest surprise of election night 2016. Thanks to the outpouring of working class Catholics, Republicans put Wisconsin in their column for the first time since in thirty-two years.

* * * * *

         In 2016, the pundits, the politicians, the polls, the media, and Clinton’s highly paid technology data geeks got many things wrong and lost, not least thanks to the turnout of Rustbelt Catholics.