President-elect Donald Trump must have been saying his prayers on election night, when the political neophyte convincingly won the Catholic vote after having trailed in the crucial demographic for nearly the entire campaign.
Exit polls show that Catholics backed the Republican nominee over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, 52 percent to 45 percent. Surveys leading up to the election indicated the faith group was shunning the New York real estate developer in droves.
Jay Richards, executive editor of the conservative Christian news website The Stream, said he monitored Catholic opinion up until Election Day and noticed a massive shift at the last minute.
“I think it’s one of the most profound demographic shifts that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said Mr. Richards, who teaches business and economics at The Catholic University of America in Washington.
A Public Religion Research Institute survey in late August showed Mrs. Clinton leading Mr. Trump among Catholics by 23 points, 55 percent to 32 percent. A Washington Post-ABC News poll that month similarly put her lead at 27 points, 61 percent to 34 percent.
And things still looked grim for Mr. Trump as Election Day drew near. A mid-October PPRI/Brookings poll showed Catholics favoring Mrs. Clinton (a Methodist) over Mr. Trump (a Presbyterian) by a 24-point margin, 57 percent to 33 percent.
Mr. Richards said Catholics initially were reluctant to back the reality TV star because of his vulgarity and harsh tone on immigration. The turning point, he said, came in the third presidential debate when Mr. Trump contrasted in stark terms his opinion on abortion against that of Mrs. Clinton.
“You remember the third debate, the one question about abortion that had never come up in a debate, came up,” Mr. Richards said. “Trump fumbled around a little bit but finally nailed it. There was not a Catholic that watched that who could not remember the ghoulishness of Hillary Clinton when it came to partial-birth abortion and Trump’s impassioned, commonsensical defense of unborn human life. It was huge.”
Catholic voters make up roughly a quarter of the electorate and, partly because their numbers, have a track record of correctly picking the eventual president. The 2016 general election marks the first time since 1972 that the winner of the Catholic vote has not also won the popular vote. (Mrs. Clinton received about 336,000 more votes than Mr. Trump, who garnered at least 279 electoral votes to seal his victory.)
Grazie Pozo Christie, a policy adviser for The Catholic Association think tank, said part of the swing toward Mr. Trump can be explained by a general desire for the country to change direction.
“Partially, I think it’s because of the general shift, because Catholics, being such a huge part of the electorate, they reflect the general shift of the electorate to a great extent,” Ms. Pozo Christie said. “So, in general, Catholics vote like the rest of America, and this was a change election.”
She said Mr. Trump’s populist message resonated with white, working-class Catholics in the Rust Belt, where the billionaire businessman made his biggest electoral gains.
And exit polls showed anxiety about the future direction of the U.S. Supreme Court weighed heavily on the minds of voters. Twenty-one percent of voters said the balance of the court was a major factor in how they voted, and among those voters, 57 percent backed Mr. Trump.
“Part of that is issues of life, all these issues that have come before the Supreme Court that are especially important to Catholics,” Ms. Pozo Christie said. “We have a gender [identity] case coming up that the Supreme Court just accepted. That’s going to be coming up soon, and Catholics understand that these issues are also religious liberty issues.”
Polling aside, there was good reason to suspect Catholics might not vote for Mr. Trump after he briefly feuded with Pope Francis during the Republican primary.
When asked in February about Mr. Trump’s plan to build a wall along the southern border, the pontiff suggested that anyone who harbors such thoughts “is not Christian.” Never one to turn the other cheek, Mr. Trump called the remark “disgraceful.”
Mr. Richards said Catholics ultimately had no choice but to overlook Mr. Trump’s impious behavior. He said Christians of all stripes were voting in “self-defense” this election, pointing to Mrs. Clinton’s plan to continue the erosion of religious liberty carried out under the Obama administration.
“There’s all sorts of things we don’t really personally like about the candidates, but one has pledged effectively to destroy us and to go after us; one has pledged to defend us,” he said. “We’ll take the strongman who has pledged to defend us. That’s what happened.”
If Democrats wish to win back disaffected Catholics in 2020, Mr. Richards said the party needs to show more respect for religious people who wish to live by the tenets of their faith.
“Quit going after the Little Sisters of the Poor,” he said, referring to a group of nuns who opposed the administration’s health care dictates. “Quit going after the bakers and the florists who simply don’t want to participate in activities that they find immoral. Quit forcing us to buy things that we think are immoral with regard to health care. It’s not that complicated.”