We’re used to thinking about religion impacting voting. The Republican capture of the evangelical vote over the past 40 years is the single biggest factor in the past several GOP victories. As Trump haters lament the success the thrice-married, porn star paying, not sure how to hold a bible president continues to have with this key voting block, based mostly on judicial nominations and maximum verbal support for the community, it’s easy to forget about Catholics. That “other” group represents almost a quarter of the country.
In Rhode Island, it’s almost half. The only other group of consequence are those who consider themselves non-observant. Among those who regularly pay attention to religion, Rhode Island is a Catholic state. And it’s not a new development. For the past hundred and fifty years or so, it, Massachusetts, and to a bit lesser extent, Connecticut have given Catholics a strong presence in New England.
Times have changed, and this doesn’t drive electoral results as directly as last century. But you can still see the pattern. Among states with a high percentage of white Catholics, Donald Trump tended to do better than recent Republican candidates. In Rhode Island, it narrowed the gap. He still lost by double digits. It was still the closest result to the national popular vote for any Republican since 1992. In places like Pennsylvania (8th most Catholic state) and Wisconsin (11th), the votes of older white Catholics may have delivered the presidency to Trump.
This time, he’s facing a Catholic opponent in Joe Biden. We don’t think of a Catholic nominee as a big deal. After all, JFK broke the Catholic Barrier in 1960. Guess how many Catholics have won the presidency since? Yup, zero. Abortion wasn’t a national issue in 1960. Kennedy was able to gain the support of the vast majority of Catholics without losing liberal Democrats on this issue. Biden is pro-choice, and disavowed the Hyde Ammendment he’d supported for 40+ years as the cost of competing for the Democratic nomination.
The energy behind the pro-life movement, once firmly planted in the Catholic Church, is now driven primarily by evangelicals. The Trump campaign, is focusing on reminding culturally conservative white Catholics that Biden is not pro-life, is a hostage of the far left, and won’t be able to provide Law and Order. Meanwhile, Biden is making a different kind of cultural appeal, attempting to connect with Catholics who are less doctrinaire but very much feel a part of the community, using his decades long record of relative moderation to push back on the new characterization.
Regardless of how this winds up, Joe Biden is going to win Rhode Island. The margin matters though. If he runs more like 20 points ahead of his national result, as Democrats did from 1996 through 2012, then Trump is going to lose places like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and Biden will win the election, no matter what happens in the Sun Belt. However, if Trump is within ten to fifteen points of his national outcome, Biden will need to hope Arizona is with him. Here’s how the math and history look:
2016 Results: Hillary Clinton 54.41%, Donald Trump 38.90%, Gary Johnson 3.18%, Jill Stein 1.34% (D +14)
2020 Polls: We don’t have any surveys for Rhode Island. Combine the perceived strong blue lean with nobody paying attention to the state and you get the absence of surveys. We do have proxies. Biden is running at least as well in Massachusetts as Clinton did. And polls in Connecticut are showing him several points ahead of Hillary’s pace. These surveys aren’t new, but Biden’s national standing is similar to or better than when they were taken, so there’s no reason to think he’s lost ground.
It’s not a perfect match. Both Massachusetts and Connecticut have a higher proportion of the highly educated suburbanites who turned against Trump in the 2018 midterms. So the data is making me guess that Biden is at least holding at where things were in Rhode Island last time, and might be clawing some of that older, white Catholic vote back. It’s not certain though.
Key Historical Shifts: As a New England state, Rhode Island tended to support Federalist candidates, and then when they became extinct, Whigs. It’s really hard to compare pre-Civil War political parties and preferences to anything we’d recognize now. You can think of Rhode Island from 1796 (after George Washington’s two uncontested terms) to 1852 as a red state that a Democrat could win in a year where he was going to have an easy time nationally. The state gave Democrats their electoral votes in 1812, 1820 (when there was no official opponent), and 1836.
The Republican Party first ran a candidate in 1856. From that debut, starring John Fremont, through 1912, Rhode Island was unquestionably red. The GOP candidate won the state, usually easily, in every election from 1856 through 1908. Woodrow Wilson broke through for the first Democratic win in 76 years, but that was entirely due to William H. Taft and Theodore Roosevelt splitting the Republican vote. Wilson ran behind his national support by several points, and barely cleared a third of the vote.
His victory did spark a bit of a change. From 1916 to 1956 it’s best to categorize Rhode Island as a swing state, one that leaned a bit red at the beginning and a bit blue at the end. It was also the stretch where the power of the Catholic voting block became apparent. In 1928, Democrats nominated Catholic candidate Al Smith, and a state that had only chosen Democrats when there was a landslide in their favor, opted for a Democrat who would lose nationally by almost twenty points. A state that had never given Democrats more than a 2 point boost over the national popular vote gave Smith an 18 point shove.
Though FDR would win Rhode Island four times in a row in the following elections, the best he did was +10, and in his first two victories, the state liked him less than the country as a whole. The six (1928-1948) consecutive Democratic wins made the state look blue, but it wasn’t yet. Dwight Eisenhower won in both 1952 and 1956, the latter by a larger margin than his national result. At this point, it looked like Rhode Island would support a Catholic or a winner. What about when the candidate was both?
Enter Mr. Kennedy. The nomination of a viable Catholic candidate pushed Rhode Island to the blue side, a position never relinquished. JFK was +27 in Rhode Island, and in the next two elections, Democrats were +39 (LBJ) and +33 (Hubert Humphrey) respectively. Things settled down a bit after this, enough for Richard Nixon (1972) and Ronald Reagan (1984) to narrowly take the state while winning 49 of 50 states each.
Though the margins have moved, Rhode Island has favored the Democrat by no less than 9 points, and generally far more, ever since Kennedy turned the tables. The road to Democratic prosperity began over a hundred years ago, was then graded by Smith, and paved by Kennedy. Catholic nominees have turned the state true blue. We’ll see how Biden does in continuing this.
How Biden Could Improve on Hillary’s 2016 Result: Massachusetts is 5th in median household income. Connecticut is 6th. Meanwhile, Rhode Island is 18th. Same story with educational attainment. MA has the 2nd highest percentage of 4-year degrees, CT 5th, RI 14th. While the state is hardly an economic or educational backwater, Rhode Island isn’t as affluent or educated as it’s neighbors, which means Trump would normally expect to have an advantage here. Biden’s supposed comparative strength with older, less educated white voters should help him do a little better than Clinton did.
How Trump Could Improve on His 2016 Result: Running against Biden, he may not be able to improve much. The extent to which he can keep to where he was will let us know how viable he is nationally though.
Forecast: I dunno. Absent footage of riots, whatever gets posted on Facebook, etc., I’d have figured Biden would both do better in raw vote, and have a greater advantage compared to his national percentage than Hillary did. Biden is a better fit for the state. While Trump’s success in holding Biden’s margin down will be predictive of what happens elsewhere, until there’s more data, I’m not comfy making a prediction on whether it works.