Bianca Labrador is a pro-life Catholic who has always voted for Republican presidential candidates, including Donald Trump. It’s a decision she has come to regret.
The 36-year-old freelance writer and mother of three young children living in the Pittsburgh, Pa. suburb of Oakmont has abandoned the GOP and plans to cast a ballot for Joe Biden this year.
At times, she said there is a voice in the back of her head asking, “am I doing the right thing voting for Biden?,” like when she sees her priest post anti-abortion posts on Facebook. But between Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, policies toward migrant children at the border and divisive rhetoric, abortion is not the deciding factor for Labrador in this election.
Even though she doesn’t agree with Biden, a Catholic himself, on every issue, Labrador thinks the former vice president is most in line with her values. “He treats people with a lot more kindness than I’ve seen come out of the Oval Office,” she said of Biden. “I haven’t seen Trump treat people with respect and kindness that Christianity tells us to.”
White Catholics have emerged as a critical component of Biden’s coalition, as the Democratic nominee’s campaign has ramped up its efforts in the final stretch of the race to make inroads with an increasingly GOP-leaning constituency that helped lift Trump to victory four years ago.
Republicans are hopeful the looming Supreme Court confirmation fight will serve to rally wary religious conservatives back to Trump. But Biden’s aides and allies are betting that most Catholics will be more motivated by the former vice president’s character — and a distaste for the current president — than any one issue, which they think will give them an edge in key Rust Belt battlegrounds where these voters play an outsized role.
“Persuadable Catholics tend to be multi-issue voters. That’s who we’re really targeting,” John McCarthy, the Biden campaign’s deputy political director, said in an interview.
“Between emerging Catholic populations in Florida, Virginia and Texas from Latinos and with the vice president’s unique ability to outperform with white working-class voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that combination will allow us to win the Catholic vote overall,” he added.
Where Trump is losing ground
While evangelicals are often considered to be the core of Trump’s base, he benefited from a swing in the Catholic vote in 2016 as well. An analysis from the Pew Research Center shows that Trump won the overall Catholic vote by 7 points and the white Catholic vote by 23 points. That came after Barack Obama narrowly won the total Catholic vote and lost the white Catholic vote by smaller margins than Hillary Clinton did in both 2008 and 2012.
Polling throughout the past few months has suggested Trump’s Catholic support is slipping. A national EWTN News/RealClear Opinion survey released this week found Biden ahead with all Catholic voters by 12 points and white Catholic voters by 5 points. A tracking poll from the liberal Data Progress showed Trump trailing by less than 2 points nationally among white Catholics.
That matters because, in those two swing states, Catholics make up roughly one-quarter of the electorate.
“If the election was held today, Joe Biden would be elected due in large part to strength with Catholics,” said Michael Wear, who directed faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 campaign. “If Trump loses the white Catholic vote, he will lose the election.”
Biden aides and allies say the outreach all starts with the candidate himself, who is only the fourth major party presidential nominee to be Catholic. Biden attends Mass every Sunday, regularly discusses his Catholic upbringing on the trail and often cities scripture in speeches. In a recent address responding to protests and riots in cities, Biden invoked Pope John Paul II, which the campaign turned into a TV ad.
To mobilize that slice of the electorate, the campaign unveiled earlier this month a national “Catholics for Biden” initiative — a type of group that didn’t exist for Clinton, who was criticized for lackluster faith outreach four years ago. After starting local chapters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, a campaign aide said they plan to launch other groups in Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, Texas and Wisconsin in the coming weeks. Part of the efforts in those states will include organizing phone banks that target heavily Catholic counties.
“We don’t just see Catholic outreach as a singular, siloed component of our campaign,” said Josh Dickson, the Biden campaign’s national faith engagement director. “It’s integrated throughout and I think that’s what makes our campaign stand out.”
In Pittsburgh, Kevin Hayes got started even earlier. Hayes, a 59-year-old who runs his own architecture firm, was motivated to organize a local “Catholics4Biden” chapter after protesters were tear gassed outside of White House in early June, calling the event the “straw that broke my emotional back.”
Hayes is a lifelong Democrat who launched similar Catholic-focused groups in the area during the last three presidential elections as well. He said up to 800 people are already involved in the 2020 effort, roughly double the number that participated during the Obama and Clinton campaigns.
“There is definitely a contingent of Catholics who voted for Trump and are rethinking their choice this election,” Hayes said. “They weren’t excited about Hillary. They knew Trump wasn’t great, but they wanted change. Now, they never thought it was going to be this bad.”
Where Trump has room to grow
Even before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death opened up a Supreme Court seat, Hayes and other Democrats knew Biden’s strength among Catholic voters would be challenged by one major issue — his support for abortion rights.
On a national “Catholics for Biden” Zoom call last week, speakers touted Biden’s ability to restore a sense of unity and empathy to the White House, as well as his views on social and racial justice, immigration, health care and the environment. But in the chat box, the lion’s share of the conversation centered on how they could convince their fellow Catholics to overlook Biden’s position on abortion.
“So my brother just texted me and (3) of my sibs, ‘repent of your support of that party and its platform, or face the fires of hell,’” one participant, who identified as Janet Tullo, wrote. “How do we touch their hearts? It’s all about abortion.”
A 2019 Pew study found that 77% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning Catholics think abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 63% of Republican and Republican-leaning Catholics said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
The national EWTN/RCO poll found that 61% of Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly backed Trump, while 69% of Catholics who seldom or never attend Mass supported Biden. And in the NBC/Marist poll of Pennsylvania, 69% of those who said they were practicing Catholics are planning to vote for Trump, while 60% of those who said they were not practicing Catholics sided with Biden.
Trump’s campaign and allies are aiming to maximize turnout with Catholics who regularly attend church, a group where the abortion issue is much more powerful. Brian Burch, the president of CatholicVote, said his group has found that 25 to 30% of regular church attendees don’t vote or are irregular voters.
CatholicVote recently launched a $10 million anti-Biden campaign targeting Catholic voters in key swing states, including a digital ad that focused on abortion, an effort that Burch said amounts to triple what they spent in all of 2016. He predicted that Trump would improve his margins with all Catholic voters by as much as 10 points.
“Pro-life is the pre-eminent issue,” Burch said. “Biden is no ordinary moderate Catholic on this issue.”
Similarly, Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservatives Union and a co-chair of “Catholics for Trump,” which launched in April, said the president’s efforts are focusing on practicing church-going Catholics. The campaign has also hired Catholic coordinators in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and run digital ads targeting Catholic voters, according to an aide.
“Joe Biden has really good wrapping paper around this idea of appealing to Catholic voters,” Schlapp said. “The problem is what’s inside the box is anathematic to most Catholic voters.”
Some in the GOP are optimistic that the battle over Ginsburg’s seat will only help these efforts. Aside from the opportunity to cement a conservative majority on the nation’s high court for a generation and potentially overturn Roe v. Wade, the two leading contenders to be nominated, Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa, are both Catholic.
Barrett in particular has faced scrutiny in the past from Democrats for her involvement in the conservative Catholic group People of Praise. Republicans argue that pursuing this line of criticism of Barrett if she becomes the nominee would backfire on Democrats in November.
But Biden’s supporters acknowledge that they were never going to have much success with voters who see abortion and the courts as their top issues. And the EWTN/RCO poll, conducted before Ginsburg’s death, found that for Catholics across the board, he coronavirus, the economy and health care ranked as the leading concerns, with abortion and Supreme Court appointments much further down the priority list.
Rather, Biden is targeting what Conor Lamb, a Democratic congressman from western Pennsylvania, calls “Golden Rule” Catholics — those who are more focused on the broader values and character of a candidate than one specific issue.
“Abortion is very important to Catholics who make it their number one voting issue,” said Lamb, who is Catholic. “The majority of Catholics are willing to look at more than one issue, which is what our faith actually recommends.”
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