Donald Trump on Thursday announced the formation of a Catholic advisory group as he looks to shore up support among a voting bloc where polling has shown him running behind 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Faced with a choice between Mr. Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, the Catholic leaders, including opponents of Mr. Trump in the GOP primary, said he’s the clear pick now.
Among those is Joseph Cella, founder of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, who earlier this year signed a letter calling Mr. Trump “manifestly unfit” to be president.
“If you look at the totality of Mr. Trump’s positions, such as preserving and protecting religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, providing an uplifting and empowering economic agenda and opening wide the opportunity for school choice, particularly to Hispanics and African Americans in urban areas, the difference couldn’t be more stark on these core issues between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton,” said Mr. Cella.
He’s one of about three dozen Catholics who are part of the advisory group, which includes former Sen. Rick Santorum, a presidential candidate himself in 2012 and 2016; Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List; and Matt Schlapp, who chairs the American Conservative Union.
“What I am seeing in my community with my friends, in my church, is that more and more practicing Catholics, conservatives, Republicans, independents are waking up to the fact that he’s the right choice to make for president,” said Mr. Schlapp.
Catholics made up about a quarter of the electorate in 2012, and President Obama won them 50 percent to Mr. Romney’s 48 percent.
A Pew Research poll released earlier this year showed Mrs. Clinton leading Mr. Trump by 17 points among Catholics.
Among weekly churchgoing Catholics in the Pew poll, the difference was even more pronounced. Mrs. Clinton had a 19-point lead over Mr. Trump, while Mr. Romney had led Mr. Obama by 3 points in polling at the same point of the race in 2012.
Mr. Trump has made headway among evangelical Christian leaders with his pledges to appoint conservative pro-life Supreme Court justices and to repeal 1950s-era legislation intended to limit the political activities of nonprofit groups like churches.
But Dave Campbell, a political science professor at Notre Dame, said those appeals aren’t working as well with Catholics and Mormons — two groups people often think of as behaving a lot like conservative evangelicals.
“I think that’s because some of the rhetoric that Donald Trump uses is particularly off-putting to Catholics in the way that it’s not for evangelicals,” said Mr. Campbell, who has written extensively about the intersection of religion and politics. “And I think that’s particularly true for immigration and for the refugee issue — those are issues that matter a lot.”
Mr. Trump’s campaign has been defined in part by his tough rhetoric on illegal immigration, and he has also criticized Mrs. Clinton for supporting the influx of more refugees from Syria.
Chad C. Pecknold, one of the Catholic leaders who called Mr. Trump unfit earlier this year, said the candidate still hasn’t swayed him — though Mrs. Clinton isn’t an option for him either.
“He represents, just as much as Clinton, a republic in moral disarray, divided against itself,” said Mr. Pecknold, a professor at the Catholic University of America.
Bishop E.W. Jackson, the founder of Exodus Faith Ministries, a nondenominational ministry based in Chesapeake, Virginia, predicted Mr. Trump would ultimately match or exceed Mr. Romney’s performance among Catholics — though he acknowledged some reluctance now.
“I think he may have the same problem with Catholics that he’s got with some Republicans, which is he’s blunt, he’s plainspoken — sometimes to his detriment,” Mr. Jackson said. “I think it gives some people pause, and probably Catholics are having that same kind of reaction as you know evangelicals did and some still do.”
That plainspoken approach landed Mr. Trump in one of the more fascinating moments of this year’s campaign in February, when he got into a war of words with Pope Francis.
The pope, traveling back from a visit to Mexico, criticized Mr. Trump’s plans to build border fencing as un-Christian.
Mr. Trump hit back hard, saying the pope was being used as a pawn by the Mexican government.
“If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’ ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president because this would not have happened,” Mr. Trump said then.
A spokesman for the pope later clarified that he was “in no way” launching a personal attack on Mr. Trump or trying to tell people how to vote, but rather speaking generally about the need to build bridges rather than walls, according to the AP.