- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Catholic voters are proving to be the wild card of this year’s presidential race, as Hispanic adherents of the faith back Democrat Hillary Clinton in large numbers and their white peers — though divided — warm to Republican rival Donald Trump, potentially tilting the balance in some of the election’s key battleground states.

A poll gives Mr. Trump a 13-point lead among Catholics, as reports about the Republican mogul’s behavior take a back seat to headlines about the FBI’s revived probe into Mrs. Clinton’s emails.

Mr. Trump has been a moral question mark for Catholics and other churchgoers, given his lewd remarks from a 2005 “Access Hollywood” taping and the long line of women who have accused him of groping or making untoward sexual advances on them.

Yet he also vowed to appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court, a key selling point for Catholics put off by his inconsistent record on abortion and Mrs. Clinton’s staunchly pro-choice stance.

“Bellwether is the right word to use, because Catholics do not vote as a bloc,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University in the District of Columbia. “The so-called Catholic vote is an aggregate of several subgroups, but that aggregate has picked the winner of every election since 1984,” save for Democrat Al Gore’s razor-thin Electoral College loss in 2000.

The Investors Business Daily/TIPP tracking poll released Wednesday showed both Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton at 44 percent of the vote overall — but among Catholics, the Republican leads 50 percent to 37 percent.

Days earlier, ahead of Friday’s surprise announcement by the FBI that it had renewed its investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s emails, those numbers were essentially reversed in a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute.

Their survey had Mrs. Clinton up by 11 percentage points among Catholics, buoyed in large part by Hispanic voters who chafe at the Republican nominee’s strident rhetoric on immigration and proposal to make Mexico pay for a border wall.

That could help Mrs. Clinton in red states such as Arizona, analysts say, yet white Catholics hewing toward Mr. Trump make up a large part of the electorate in Ohio and Pennsylvania, meaning where they land on Election Day could determine the overall winner.

G. Terry Madonna, a political professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, said Catholics made up 35 percent of the Keystone State vote in 2012, slightly higher than the national average, and that Mr. Obama won them over by a narrow margin four years ago.

This time, Mr. Trump appears to be gaining ground among white Irish Catholics in hardscrabble Scranton and other parts of the state where voters feel betrayed by global trade deals.

“The Catholic vote is located in Trump country this year — in the Southwest and Northeast,” he said. “These are Catholics whose ancestors came from southeastern Europe, and they came to work in the mines and the mills.”

“I would be surprised,” Mr. Madonna said, “if, overall, Trump does not do well with them here.”

CatholicVote, a conservative Catholic advocacy group, is piling on with a $500,000 digital ad buy that blasts Mrs. Clinton in Ohio, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania, particularly in the metro Philadelphia area, which Democrats are relying on to turn a single-digit lead in the polls into victory in the state on Tuesday.

The ads encourage Catholic voters to get off the sidelines in a contentious race that has left many voters jaded.

But the Rev. Frank Pavone, executive director of Priests for Life, said he “absolutely” prefers Mr. Trump. His group is pushing Catholics in key battleground states to examine each party’s platform and the fact that positions on abortion “do not simply constitute a position on an issue, but rather speak to what kind of government we have.”

“I believe the role of Catholics will be significant inasmuch as there’s such a high concentration of Catholics in the key states of Pennsylvania, Florida and, to a lesser extent, in Ohio,” he said.

Mr. Trump has made a direct appeal to Catholic voters by sitting down for an interview with the Eternal Word Television Network. He said his lewd comments about women were “locker-room talk,” and he portrayed Mrs. Clinton as hostile to people of faith.

Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, is counting on her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, to keep Catholic voters in the fold.

Mr. Kaine, a Catholic who did missionary work in Honduras before his political career, said his presence on the ticket is evidence that Mrs. Clinton supports the faith.

Mr. Kaine has taken on criticism from Catholics for officially backing abortion rights, despite his personal opposition to the procedure.

Still, PRRI said, Mr. Kaine, who deploys his fluent Spanish on the campaign trail, and Mrs. Clinton held a 84 percent to 12 percent edge over Mr. Trump and running mate Mike Pence among Catholic Hispanic voters.

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