Even after Pope Francis seemed to say Republican frontrunner Donald Trump was “not Christian,” the real estate tycoon won two of the five most Catholic states in the country, and by wide margins. Polls indicate he enjoys more support among Roman Catholics than he did before the pontiff’s declaration.
On Tuesday, three of the most Catholic states in America (Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania) will vote. Trump is favored to win across the board, including in Delaware and Maryland. The blustering tycoon, who openly declares his Christianity but says he never asked God for forgiveness, who runs casinos, divorced two wives, and bragged about sleeping with other women, seems an unlikely pick for religious voters, whatever their denomination.
As Nathan Schlueter, associate professor of philosophy at Hillsdale College, pointed out, “There is no evidence that a Trump presidency would promote evangelical values; in fact, there is more evidence that he would oppose them. Yet Trump continues to be the favorite candidate of evangelical voters.” Schlueter, a Roman Catholic himself, would likely associate those values with Catholics as well.
The conundrum of why evangelicals or Catholics support this unrepentant sinner is likely explained by the failure of polling methods: people who identify as Catholic or evangelical may not be that religious. Nevertheless, the numbers are astonishing.
According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll published this month, Trump has an average of 47.9 percent of Catholic Republicans in the fifty days since Pope Francis attacked his faith on February 18. In the fifty days before the comment, The Donald only had an average of 39.8 percent.
Trump’s numbers among Catholics look even better when examining the primary results so far. In Massachusetts (the third most Catholic state in the nation), Trump won an astounding 53 percent of Catholics, where papists accounted for 50 percent of the vote. In New York, the fifth most Catholic state, The Donald famously walloped his competition with 60.4 percent of the vote, and won among both evangelical Christians and non-evangelicals (Catholic vote tallies are unavailable). In Illinois, the ninth most Catholic state, Trump won with 38.8 percent of the vote, but lost the evangelical Christian vote to Ted Cruz.
Only in Wisconsin, the seventh most Catholic state, did Trump’s closest rival prevail. Ted Cruz won with 48.2 percent of the vote there, and there was no exit polling on Catholicism there.
Rhode Island is the most Catholic state, and Connecticut ranks fourth. Pennsylvania, which also votes Tuesday, is ninth. Three pivotal states which vote on June 7 are also heavily Catholic: New Jersey (second), New Mexico (sixth), and California (tied with Wisconsin for seventh).
Trump’s lead with Catholics in the states voting Tuesday may also fall in line with his regional strength in the northeast of the country. The most heavily Catholic states happen to be situated in this region, although this correlation does not fully explain why Roman Catholics favor the real estate tycoon.
Next Page: But do the most devout also support The Donald? The answer may surprise you.
Jay Richards, assistant research professor at the Catholic University of America, suggested that Catholic support for Trump is largely ephemeral, the result of bad polling. In an email statement to PJ Media on Monday, he argued that more devout Catholics, like more devout evangelicals, tend not to like The Donald nearly as much.
“Trump polls better than one initially might expect with voters who self-identify as ‘Catholic,'” Richards admitted, “but I’m convinced that this is mostly the result of the fact that most Americans self-identify as Christians (either Catholic or Protestant).”
“Without being more specific, pollsters are simply sampling the American population,” but when polls separate the nominal from the devout, Richards explained, you start to see different results. “Among Catholics who frequently attend Mass — that is, at least once a week — support for Trump is much lower. We see the same thing with evangelicals.”
Richards extended that divide to the New England primaries on Tuesday. “Trump will do about as well with nominal Catholics as he does with the general population, but much less well with devout Catholics as measured by worship and church participation.”
Richards’ explanation fits with studies of the evangelical vote. As National Review‘s J.D. Vance explained in February, the areas of South Carolina which voted for Trump by large margins also have lower church-attendance rates. In areas where Cruz did well, more people go to church on a regular basis. In other words, Trump may not be a true believer, but that’s okay because most “evangelical” — and by extension, “Catholic” — voters aren’t either.
Polling further supports this divide. According to a Gallup poll from last September, Trump enjoyed his highest favorable ratings among those who identified as “moderately religious,” while Cruz’s best numbers came from the “highly religious” category.
Another piece of data in support of this theory comes from a study of which candidates Christian clergy pastors and clergy most support with their cash. Cruz received $155,500 in contributions from 380 clergy members who each gave above the $200 reporting threshold, through February of this year. In contrast, Trump only received $700 from 10 people, and Kasich took $3,500 from nine clergy donors. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has received $85,400 from 280 clergy members, while Clinton has taken roughly $192,500 from 250 pastors or priests.
None of this negates the fact that The Donald leads handily in most polls in the states that vote Tuesday. According to the RealClearPolitics polling averages, he’s up 29.3 points in Rhode Island, 26.3 points in Connecticut, and 20.2 points in Pennsylvania. The majority of Catholics, nominal or otherwise, seem to like Trump, and that will show in his likely victories Tuesday night.