Campaigns target Catholic voters in crucial swing states

shutterstock 1171586311 Polling station on Election Day. | flysnowfly/Shutterstock

As the polls open for in-person voting for Tuesday's general election, campaigners on both sides of the party divide are looking to turn out the critical Catholic vote, with the candidates' stances on abortion a crucial issue for persuading voters.

Kevin Hayes, co-founder of Pittsburgh Catholics for Biden, has been working to target persuadable households in the Catholic-rich Pittsburgh area, encouraging them to show up and vote for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. He said he recently encouraged members of the group to pray.

"God is with every Catholic, whether you're voting for President Trump or Joe Biden," Hayes told CNA. "One of the things we've kind of pointed out to people is take your concerns and worries and anxiety to God, and put them at the foot of the Cross, and ask God to help you with that."

The Catholic vote in several states could be critical to determining the outcome of the election.

According to the latest EWTN News/RealClearOpinion Research poll released earlier in October, Biden was ahead in the overall Catholic vote by a 12-point margin (52% to 40%). However, in six key "battleground" states of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, his lead narrowed to just four points (48% to 44%).

Pennsylvania will be one of the most closely-watched states on Tuesday. While often a Democratic state in presidential elections, Trump unexpectedly flipped the state red in 2016.

There and in several other states, the group has been calling, door-knocking, and targeting digital ads toward Catholics. Joshua Mercer, a co-founder of the organization, told CNA that the group made more than 1 million individual phone calls over the weekend.

Fighting against abortion and for religious freedom have been primary issue concerns for the group, Mercer said.

"We've wanted to let Catholics know that a Biden presidency would mean fighting a renewed fight for taxpayer funding of abortions," Mercer said, adding that the Democratic presidential nominee has promised to roll back religious freedom exemptions for groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor.  

Biden has said repeatedly that he would repeal religious freedom exemptions to the so-called contraceptive mandate which granted relief to Catholic organizations, including the Little Sisters, who were compelled under the order to provide contraceptive and abortifacient drugs for their employees. 

Earlier this year, Biden called a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the sisters' protections "disappointing" and promised to revoke their exemption once elected.

"All those fights would return if Biden came back," Mercer said in reference to the sisters' years-long court battles against the mandate.

Many Catholics who did not support Trump in 2016, or reluctantly voted for him, now support him, Mercer said. For many, Trump in 2016 appeared "untested" and was known for his "tabloid lifestyle."

Yet "he really has delivered for Catholic voters" on the life issue and on religious freedom, Mercer said.

Pro-life advocates have also been making phone calls and house visits in support of Trump. Earlier in 2016, the Susan B. Anthony List and Women Speak Out PAC announced a $52 million campaign to target swing state voters and highlight what they see as Trump's pro-life credentials and Biden's abortion support.

On Monday, the groups said they had reached more than eight million voters and visited 2.5 million homes in swing states.

Mallory Quigley, national spokeswoman for the independent expenditure campaign, told CNA that the response has been encouraging-particularly from "persuadable" voters or pro-lifers who are "inconsistent" voters.

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"Life is definitely a winning issue. We've known this. We've seen it. We've seen it change votes in the last three election cycles," she said.

For many persuadable voters, their support of President Trump's re-election in 2020 comes down to policies and not the personality of the candidate, she said. 

"A lot of people who did not vote for Trump in 2016 that are going to vote for him this time," she said, because he "has followed through on every commitment that he has made to the pro-life movement that is within his power to do."

"Even if they want to support a pro-abortion Democratic candidate because of their support for other issues" such as immigration or climate change, she said, "once they hear about how far Democrats will go on abortion" then "that knowledge is powerful enough for them to then change their vote."

But despite the turn out efforts for the president among pro-life groups, Hayes said many Pennsylvania Catholics now regret their support of Trump in 2016. He blamed the Democrats' loss in 2016 in part on a lack of focus on religious voters by the national campaign.

"I think it's fair to say many Catholics voted for President Trump because they were not fans of Hillary Clinton, and the Clinton campaign did not do an effective or a very overt outreach to faith communities, particularly Catholics.," Hayes told CNA. "And that turned a lot of Catholics off."

However, many of the same households that supported Trump out of a desire for "change" now say they "didn't realize it was going to be this bad," he said.

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Biden's support for abortion has been a focal point of Catholic critics of his campaign.

"The message we've been bringing to people that being pro-life is really about multiple issues and abortion is one of them, but it's not the only issue that Catholic voters need to keep in mind," Hayes said.

Biden has promised to codify Roe v. Wade, cover abortions on "public option" health care plans, fund elective abortions through Medicaid reimbursements, and publicly fund abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood.  

When Biden reversed his support of the Hyde Amendment-a policy that limits taxpayer funding of abortions-that came amid serious pressure from the left during the primaries, Hayes said.

"I really wonder after he's elected if he's going to go there or not. And I think there are Catholics who are Democrats who are going to appeal to him to not repeal the Hyde Amendment. We'll see what happens," he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already promised not to include the policy with spending bills next year, setting up a possible fight in Congress over the issue.

When households ask about Biden's stance on abortion, Hayes says his group answers that Bide is "not pro-abortion," but would rather "like to see the number of abortions reduced."

"He does believe in safe and legal abortions if that's the law of the land. So most people say, 'okay'."

The U.S. bishops' conference, in the letter accompanying its voting document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," says that "[t]he threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority" for Catholics when considering for whom to vote "because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed."

"At the same time, we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty," the bishops said.

Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh also addressed the issue in a Sept. 23 letter. "At the forefront of 'life issues,'" he wrote, "is the right to be born as the right upon which all other 'life issues' rest."

This is because "many issues," he said, "flow from the beginning of life at the moment of conception."

Hayes told CNA that many Catholics he and others have talked to "vote multiple pro-life issues, including health care, including economic justice, including worker rights, including more compassionate immigration policy."

"And so we just wanted to get in front of them and say 'you have every right to believe that it is more than abortion.' And in fact we believe that is really the truer message of the Gospel, that it is multiple issues'."

"I think that most Catholics have been put off by President Trump's efforts to demean Joe Biden's Catholic faith," he said. "I think most Catholics understand he's a decent person and he's given his life to service and his Catholic faith has informed that life of service. And people give him credit for that."

For those who are "staunchly" pro-life and will not support a candidate who upholds legal abortion, "what we said is 'good for you, we disagree with you, but God bless you'," he said. 

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