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The 'blue wall' is reforming in the Rust Belt

In 2016, President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Iran says onus is on US to rejoin nuclear deal on third anniversary of withdrawal Assaults on Roe v Wade increasing MORE broke through Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' Hillary Clinton: There must be a 'global reckoning' with disinformation Pelosi's archbishop calls for Communion to be withheld from public figures supporting abortion rights MORE’s “blue wall.” He won three states that Democrats had carried since the 1980s: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

As Politico explained in an analysis last December that examined the Democrats’ chances of retaking those states in 2020, along with lower turnout among some Democratic constituencies, “in each of those states … some disaffected Democrats defected to Trump.” These disaffected Democrats, as subsequent analyses found, were disproportionately “white voters without a college degree.”

But now, less than four years later, all three of those states have shifted again and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenDefense lawyers for alleged Capitol rioters to get tours of U.S. Capitol Sasse to introduce legislation giving new hires signing bonuses after negative jobs report Three questions about Biden's conservation goals MORE is leading Trump. And while John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira discussed many of the demographics (e.g., gender, age, college education) of the approximately 9 percent of Trump voters who recently seem poised to vote for Biden, they did not mention these voters’ religious affiliation.

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Yet other data points and newly released polls suggest Trump’s problem across these Rust Belt states likely resides with white Catholics — a group his campaign is strongly vying for.  

Although Catholics, as a whole, are generally as divided as the country and there has even been some debate about which candidate won the Catholic vote in 2016, there is no doubt about the fact that a solid majority of white Catholics supported Trump (depending on the survey measure, it was either 56, 60 or 64 percent). This was not all that unusual in that white Catholics have sided with the Republican candidate in the last five elections.

Still, what few seemed to notice was how poorly Clinton appeared to perform with white Catholics. According to Pew Research Center’s analysis of the exit polls, she earned only 37 percent of the white Catholic vote. She fared worse than Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreHawaii legislature passes bill to implement automatic voter registration Libertarians elected Biden Gore believes China will 'overachieve' on emissions goal MORE in 2000 (45 percent), John KerryJohn KerryChina emitted more greenhouse gasses than US, developed world combined in 2019: analysis Overnight Energy: Republicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process| EPA official directs agency to ramp up enforcement in overburdened communities | Meet Flint prosecutor Kym Worthy Republicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process MORE in 2004 (43 percent), and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Obamas' first White House dog, Bo, dies Census results show White House doubling down on failure MORE in 2008 and 2012 (47 percent and 40 percent). As poorly as Clinton did, the largest percentage point decrease for a Democratic candidate occurred between 2008 and 2012, which suggests that white Catholics had “soured” on Obama’s presidency before Trump declared for the presidency. 

Clinton should have seen this coming. There were signs everywhere. Pew Research Center assessed the “religious landscape” in America in 2007 and again in 2014. In Pennsylvania — where about 24 percent of adults identify as Catholic, at least 88 percent of Catholics are white and a plurality (38 percent) of Catholics have not gone to college — there was an 8 percentage point decrease among Catholics in Democratic Party affiliation between the two surveys.

Similarly, in Wisconsin — where about 25 percent of adults identify as Catholic, about 89 percent of Catholics are white and 45 percent of Catholics have not gone to college — there was a 9 percentage point decrease among Catholics in Democratic Party affiliation between 2007 and 2014. Given this, it should not have been that surprising that Wisconsin was one of a few states with a large number of closely contested counties in the 2012 election and that it swung to the Republicans in 2016. It had been heading there since at least 2014.

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Although Michigan doesn’t have as many adults who identify as Catholic (18 percent), it remains the case that 85 percent of Catholics in the state are white and that 35 percent of Catholics have not gone to college. More to the point, there was a 5 percentage point decrease among Catholics in Democratic Party affiliation between 2007 and 2014.

And crucially, if we are to understand the Catholics who swing between the two parties, it is important to recognize that in each of these states, the plurality of Catholics (44 percent, 42 percent, and 37 percent, respectively) consider themselves political moderates.

So, what do all of these data have to do with 2020? Although Pew Research Center has not yet performed another “religious landscape” report, there are other data points that suggest some of these trends are reversing course.

For instance, in the 2018 midterm elections, the exit polls reported that Democrats earned 41 percent of the white Catholic vote. And while this 4 percentage point bump in support may be nothing to write home about, it puts the Democrats at about the level of where Obama was in 2012 when he won Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Another Pew Research Center survey from 2019 showed Trump’s approval rating among white Catholics falling from 52 percent to 44 percent during his first two years in office.

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More recently, a PRRI poll found that Trump’s favorability rating among white Catholics had fallen from an average of 49 percent in 2019 to 37 percent in May 2020

While it remains unlikely that Biden, a Catholic, will be able to pull a majority of white Catholics towards the Democratic Party in November, were he to garner 45 percent of their votes, it seems likely that Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin will again be colored blue.

Though Trump still has time to regain some of his past Catholic support, his recent stunts — a photo op at the D.C. shrine dedicated to Pope John Paul II and a tweet praising an archbishop who previously called for the Pope to resign — are not likely to be received well by most Catholics.

The wall that Trump may have erected by November is not along the country’s southern border, but a blue one across the Rust Belt.  

Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.