Rustbelt Catholics Put Trump over the Top

Rustbelt Catholics Put Trump over the Top

George J. Marlin writes about the role of the Catholic swing vote in key battleground states. Trump owes us.

The Catholic Thing

Note: Everyone is already tired of post-mortems on the election, but it’s long been asked whether there is still a “Catholic vote” in America. George Marlin, one of the few real authorities on the subject, clarifies where there was – and wasn’t – a Catholic factor in Tuesday’s surprising outcome. And if you patiently look them over, he’s got the numbers to prove it. Our last column on this election – promise – for some time to come.

In my 2004 book The American Catholic Voter: 200 Years of Political Impact, 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

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.

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.

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?

[On the flip side]


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’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.”

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.

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.

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18 comments on “Rustbelt Catholics Put Trump over the Top

  1. 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.

    Memo to Pinko Pope and Mush-mouthed Archbishop Chaput: Catholics woke up. They aren’t listening to ABC, cBS, and all the other BS networks. And they aren’t listening to you!

    Deo gratias! Semper Deo gratias et Mariae!

    • My laugh of the day: This just in from Gray Lady:
      New York Times publisher vows to ‘rededicate’ paper to reporting honestly

      The publisher of The New York Times penned a letter to readers Friday promising that the paper would “reflect” on its coverage of this year’s election while rededicating itself to reporting on “America and the world” honestly.

      Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., the paper’s embattled publisher, appealed to Times readers for their continued support.


    • It is possible that Trump’s hiring of Kellyanne Fitzpatrick Conway, a Catholic from Philadelphia, as his campaign manager, helped significantly in Pennsylvania. Pro-Life Catholics helped win this election for Trump.
      “Chris Matthews, call your office.”

      Liberals don’t want to admit that Hillary was wrong and awful on the abortion question in the debate. She was grotesque and extremist on abortion.

      • I’m glad you brought up Kellyanne. What an unsung champion she is. I’ll put her up alongside Phyllis Schlafly, of happy memory (may she rest in peace). Kellyanne tamed the beast enough without interrupting his genuine personal outreach that garnered his strongest supporters. She walked into the lions’ den of media sycophants and handed them their hats. Outstanding!

        So, Mrs. Conway, if you’re listening, three hearty cheers to you, and a God Bless to you and your family. Thank you!

        • Keep that in mind. What traditionally were considered ethnic pro-life Catholics, voters in South Philly, Pittsburgh, Western Pennsylvania, small towns in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, along with their Evangelical counterparts, saved this country from certain destruction by an Alinskyite Illuminati socialist pro-abortion maniac who wanted open borders for crazy anti-Christian terrorists.

          • I’ll keep this in mind, too: I never would have joined Trump’s campaign because he disgusts me. Both Phyllis and Kellyanne saw through this and put their eyes on the more important aspect, namely, the chance to thoroughly defeat the “Alinskyite Illuminati socialist pro-abortion” establishment.

            • If the opponent had not been so evil and so extreme in her pro-abortion agenda, the tape with the crude comments would have been enough to sink his candidacy. Adultery is still immoral and a mortal sin. There is plenty to criticize. However, we could not allow her to appoint socialist pro-abortion justices to the Supreme Court. Crude comments and adultery are deplorable. Partial-birth abortion and abortion on demand are worse. The greater evil lost.

              There is a cultural context for the vulgarity and crudity of both candidates. Both are products of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. That deserves discussion and debate.

        • [Speaking of Phyllis Schlafly: a review of a recent book about her]

          Phyllis Schlafly: The Mother of Conservatism [I prefer the title (from another book about her) “Sweetheart of the Silent Majority” – Tom the AQ moderator]

          by Gregory L. Schneider

          Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade, by Donald T. Critchlow (Princeton University Press, 2005)


          Donald Critchlow, a political historian at Saint Louis University, has shattered the historical barrier, providing a well written, impressively researched, and sympathetic study of the importance of grassroots activism in the formation of modern American conservatism. Critchlow shows how Schlafly, a dedicated Republican activist, used her talent to mobilize grassroots conservatives, the majority of them women, and how, in conjunction with intellectuals and politicians, she helped move the GOP to the Right. Those looking for a traditional biography of Schlafly will not find it here. Critchlow’s book is mostly concerned with Schlafly’s activist career. And it is a fascinating tale.

          For younger readers, the name Phyllis Schlafly probably will not mean much, which is regrettable, for she is truly conservatism’s founding mother. For those of us who grew up in the 1970s, she was everywhere, on talk shows, on the news, on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” in magazines. Most of what we saw or read about her was negative. She was standing in the way of progress, of the liberation of women from patriarchal authority. She was traditional, believing that the Equal Rights Amendment portended a day when women could be drafted into the military, could serve in combat roles, and homosexuals could marry. Flash forward thirty years—was she wrong?

          Her long career cannot be captured simply in a treatment of her opposition to the ERA, as famous as that made her. By the end of the ERA fight, Schlafly had been a conservative activist for close to thirty years, having run for Congress from her Alton, Illinois, district, mobilized women against communism, headed up the National Federation of Republican Women (from which she was purged after 1964), served as a delegate to Republican national conventions, and written books like A Choice, Not an Echo and The Gravediggers (coauthored with Chester Ward), which combined sold three million copies in 1964. All the while, she remained a dedicated mother and spouse, bearing and rearing five children. During the ERA battle she would often anger her feminist opponents when she led off her talks saying, “I’d like to thank my husband for allowing me to speak here tonight.”

          Critchlow’s book is as much a history of the neglected grassroots activism that helped conservatives gain power in the 1980s as it is about Schlafly. Historians have turned their attention to conservatism in the past decade, and there are many valuable studies of specific organizations and biographies of individuals. Yet scholars still point to George H. Nash’s magisterial 1976 work The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 as a model for the study of conservative history. Its portrait of intellectuals shaping the movement has led historians to look for the rise of the Right among academics, journalists, and policy wonks.

          Grassroots activism has remained an orphan in conservative history. There have been a few case studies of grassroots politics, such as Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors, about Orange County and the “little old women in tennis shoes” who made up the John Birch Society. But Critchlow’s book, based on prodigious research in Schlafly’s own papers, a huge collection kept in her Eagle Forum headquarters, as well as sixty additional archives, imparts a new dimension to our understanding of conservative politics—the long-term importance of grassroots organizing for the conservative revival. His book, while a study of one woman’s fight for conservative causes, also offers an alternative approach to understanding the long sweep of conservative history.

          Critchlow puts to rest a few myths about the development of the Right in postwar America. He challenges the arguments of liberal historians like Rick Perlstein and Dan T. Carter who view conservatism’s development as a reaction to the civil-rights movement. Critchlow sets them straight. Anticommunism played the biggest role for the development of grassroots conservatism. “For anticommunist activists like Schlafly,” Critchlow writes, “the struggle against communism dictated all aspects of political life from the local to the national level.”

          While there were certainly anti-Semites and racists on the Right, in the 1950s and 1960s when the civil-rights movement was at high tide, conservatives were more concerned about communism than race relations. “Southern anti-Semitism and segregation were not integral to conservative thought in the South,” Critchlow states, “nor were these prejudices closely associated with the Republican Party in the South.” The GOP in the South “saw its first political inroads in the postwar era in white middle-class suburbs.”

          It is not surprising, therefore, that Schlafly and like-minded Christian middle-class white women were not chanting “we shall overcome” in Mississippi peace marches—nor should anything nefarious be inferred about them not doing so. Communism was their vital concern, and Schlafly dedicated her time and resources to exposing its threats. Not only did she write very readable books about Soviet defense policies and the USSR’s growing missile strength—and concomitant American weakness—but she dedicated a syndicated radio program, “America, Wake Up” to the issue of communism.

          What made Schlafly so appealing as a leader? Much of it was owed to a value system she learned early in life. She was imbued with a strong work ethic, a sense of serious purpose, and commitment to her Catholic faith. An intelligent and self-confident young woman, Schlafly attended Washington University in St. Louis during World War II, working at a nearby ordinance factory testing ammunition. She received a fellowship to attend Radcliffe for graduate school and took a job at the American Enterprise Association as a researcher. She returned to St. Louis and married Fred Schlafly, an attorney for manufacturer John Olin.

          She became active in Republican politics, starting off as a party committeewoman and volunteering on behalf of the local GOP. Her first foray as a candidate, running for Congress from Illinois’s twenty-first district against an entrenched Democratic political machine, allowed her to reach wider audiences where she honed her speaking style and skills as a debater. She lost the race but dedicated herself afterwards to conservative causes.

          The publication of A Choice, Not an Echo in 1964 contributed greatly to the nomination of Barry Goldwater for president that year. It also made Schlafly a national celebrity. Critchlow conveys a humorous story that occurred on a plane trip to Vancouver. At a refueling stop in Seattle, the pilot announced that a crowd had gathered to greet one of the celebrities on board the plane. Comedian Bob Hope, who was traveling with the Schlaflys, got up to exit the plane, but the pilot told Hope to sit down. The crowd wanted Phyllis Schlafly. After the Goldwater debacle, she immersed herself into a study of defense issues and published several books with Admiral Chester Ward. She supported Richard Nixon for president in 1968, but, like many conservatives, she felt betrayed by Nixon’s détente policies and his opening to communist China.

          She became the feminist’s bête noire as a result of her other political activities. Schlafly had always stressed the need for religion and politics to mix. This “moral populism,” as Critchlow calls it, allowed her and like-minded women to do the work necessary both to preserve the moral order of Christianity and defend the nation from its enemies. During the 1960s, it appeared that liberalism was the enemy. Liberals were fighting wars in Southeast Asia—unlike many conservatives, Schlafly was not an enthusiastic supporter of the wars in Korea and Vietnam—expanding social spending, falling behind the Soviets in strategic weapons and, via the Supreme Court, threatening the basis of constitutional government.

          A growing number of court decisions, especially Roe v. Wade, challenged traditional Christian values, and conservatives mobilized to fight the trend. Schlafly took the lead, publishing an attack on feminism in the February 1972 edition of The Phyllis Schlafly Report that began her crusade to stop the Equal Rights Amendment.

          Almost single-handedly, with few politicians from the Republican Party supporting her—Critchlow documents how Gerald Ford’s administration tried to stop Schlafly, with Betty Ford playing the crucial role—Schlafly formed a new organization, STOP-ERA, to block passage of the amendment. The better-funded and better-organized feminists possessed almost every advantage from the start, but they lacked unity. Schlafly dominated STOP-ERA. She was the organization’s national public face and vehicle for conveying the anti-feminist message. Supporting her were thousands of churchgoing women, united in their belief that ERA, Roe, and other feminist policies threatened the traditional values in which they believed. They had confidence that Schlafly could convey these ideas, and their faith in her proved well founded.

          Both STOP-ERA and the National Organization for Women (NOW) had similar memberships. The majority of both organizations consisted of college graduates, and both groups had women of similar income levels. Feminists tended to be younger, and there was a prevalence of single and divorced women in NOW. But the fundamental distinction between the two organizations was religious. “A remarkable 98 percent of anti-ERA supporters,” Critchlow writes, “claimed church membership, while only 31 to 48 percent of pro-ERA supporters did.” It is not wrong to claim that STOP-ERA was the backbone of today’s social conservative politics.

          The pro-ERA forces had the media on their side, including women’s magazines, celebrities such as Alan Alda, Playboy magazine—which the feminists played down—and the major television networks and newspapers. They were not unified politically, however. Some wanted to push for lesbian rights, others for gender equity, and still others for full equality with men on every level. Their divisions worked in favor of the determined Schlafly. In 1982, ERA’s deadline for ratification expired before it could be approved by the needed thirty-eight states. For her role in stopping ERA, Schlafly drew the venom of feminists and the Left. To say she was hated is to put it mildly. She received reams of hate mail, pornographic pictures, and used sanitary napkins from screeching feminists incensed at her “treason.” Critchlow recounts this and more. Feminists developed a Schlafly voodoo doll, complete with pins. Betty Friedan famously said in a debate with Schlafly, “I’d like to burn you at the stake.”

          One episode recounted by Critchlow involved the popular CBS show “Cagney and Lacey.” In a story that was to air a few days before the final expiration of ERA, the title characters guard an antifeminist leader—whose mannerisms mimicked Schlafly’s—against a threat on her life. Coming as it did only a few months after John Lennon’s assassination, Schlafly supporters were exasperated and petitioned for the episode not to air. (It was aired a few months later.)

          Since the ERA’s defeat, Schlafly lost a lot of public attention and exposure. But she continued to fight for her causes, believing that judges threaten democracy and constitutional government. (She wrote about this in The Supremacists, published in 2004.) She also took up the fight against trade agreements and against illegal immigration. She remained active, a vigorous octogenarian maintaining a crowded schedule that includes lecturing, hosting a weekly radio show, writing a column, and running her activist organization, Eagle Forum.

          Critchlow captures Schlafly’s importance for the conservative movement. Without activists like her, without their dedication and talent in mobilizing likeminded people, conservatism may not have made the inroads it has in American politics. In Critchlow’s capable hands the story of grassroots organizing comes alive. The book is a splendid example of political history, telling the story of an important woman and the legacy she has left conservatism.

  2. Father Mulcahy, S.J.: Oh, yes, the return and rediscovery of the Catholic vote will be one of the great stories of the 2016 election. As Father Gannon used to tell Coach Lombardi at Fordham, team spirit is very important for a college campus. Of course, it will take a while for pundits like Chris Matthews to figure out that the combination of populism and pro-life policies was the crucial formula for winning and turning out the Catholic vote.

  3. Don’t forget that the Pope did nothing to help defeat Clinton. What he really stands for is still a question, but the possible answer is quite disturbing.

  4. In rural towns
    We work all day
    We told the Succubus
    To go away!


  5. To all the Trump bashers out there expressing disgust at his remarks and sexual proclivities let us remember that he was the only one to use his own money to defeat the far more evil Clintons and their surrogates. He put his butt on the line and should be thanked, not criticized. The real evil person out there is one George Soros and all the criticism in the world should be directed at him. When are Catholics going to get this gift from Trump right in their minds?

  6. It is important to keep in mind that most schools in this country do not teach Christian Ethics or Christian moral reasoning due to Supreme Court fiats to impose secular humanism and moral relativism.

    Trump: used crude and obscene language when bragging about celebrity sexual prowess in a private conversation.

    Hillary: advocated stabbing scissors into the back of a human baby’s head to commit infanticide by late-term partial-birth abortion just seconds before the child was born.

    Which was worse and more evil?

    Catholic voters figured this out by 52% to 45% despite progressive modernist Situation Ethics, secular humanism, and moral relativism being imposed by cultural elites and secular progressives. Although 45% are still tragically in need of emergency evangelization and catechism, the 52% who figured it out are an encouraging sign of the work of the Holy Spirit. Now, just imagine how much better those numbers could be if the bishops, laity, priests, and nuns really dedicated themselves to authentic Catholic education in real Catholic schools and colleges.

  7. I am very hopeful for the Trump presidency and extremely grateful for the defeat of HRC. There was no other choice than DJT for those of us who strive to protect and defend the innocent unborn. However, I do fear that DJT’s LGTBQ support will be his Achilles’ Heel. Not only does this segment of the community bring death to human society, their depravity also lowers morality throughout the culture and imposes irrational thought processes and distorted moral reasoning on the general population. Hopefully, DJT will quietly realize he needs to distance himself from that constituency and begin to work for the promotion of stable, faith-filled, child-rich families (which also includes allowing men to make a salary such that their wives can be fruitful at home). Get far away from Sodom, Mr. Trump, and don’t look back!

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