In the spiritual world, sometimes it’s better to focus on the moment rather than fret about the future. As Jesus says in the book of Matthew, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
But when it comes to the American electoral system, you really, really need to pay attention to the future — specifically, Election Day. And that’s what makes GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s recent spat with Pope Francis so interesting, and likely destructive to his general election prospects.
The religious tiff began last week, when Trump called Francis “political” for visiting the U.S.-Mexico border, theorizing that the pope was only expressing sympathy for immigrants because he was coopted by the Mexican government. The pope responded to the accusations this week during his return to Rome, dismissing Trump’s plan to build a wall between America and Mexico as “not Christian” and implicitly questioning Trump’s own faith.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel,” Francis said. “As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he said things like that.”
Trump’s campaign initially released a statement doubling down on the accusations and calling the head of the Catholic Church “disgraceful” for casting aspersions on his faith. But Trump was already walking back his comments by Thursday evening, telling CNN “I don't like fighting with the pope,” and suggesting that the pope’s comments were actually “much softer than originally reported.”
The rapid shift to a conciliatory tone was uncharacteristic for the famously bombastic Trump, and hinted that “the Donald” may have been clued in on something most political analysts already know: messing with the pope — especially when it comes to the general election — is bad politics.
Granted, for the primary season, Trump’s back-and-forth with the Holy Father likely won’t hurt him at all. In fact, it may help him: Trump’s religious supporters are largely evangelicals that don’t even go to church that often, and those that do sometimes harbor anti-Catholic sentiments.
“The Pope is a nutcase,” Harry Jones, a baptist South Carolina Trump supporter, told The Atlantic. “All they are is a cult. They’re not Christians. He’s a zero. He’s a commie. He’s as useless as tits on a boar hog.”
This kind of voter will probably help propel Trump to victory in the next round of early primary states, which, as FiveThirtyEight’s Leah Libresco pointed out, are focused in Southern states such as South Carolina, where skylines are silhouetted with far more Southern Baptist steeples than Catholic cathedrals.
But if Trump makes it to the general election, he’s going to have a Pope problem. Pope Francis is way more popular than Trump in the United States, enjoying +53 favorability rating among Americans, compared to Trump’s -27 favorability rating. More importantly, Catholics who call Francis their pope have grown into a finicky but crucial swing vote that doesn’t blindly support Catholic candidates, but does require some courting: Catholic John Kerry lost the Catholic vote to evangelical Christian George W. Bush in 2004, but Barack Obama won it back in both 2008 and 2012. This shift is partially because, according to a 2015 study from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the average Catholic is actually more progressive than the average American on issues such as marriage equality and legislation to help stem the effects of climate change — things Trump openly opposes (the twice-divorced businessman supports “traditional marriage” and believes climate change was invented by the Chinese).
And most damning of all, studies show that a GOP candidate will have to lock in more than 40 percent of Latino vote to win the White House in 2016. While a growing number Hispanics are converting to evangelicalism, the lion’s share is still deeply Catholic, and poll after poll has shown their top issue is often immigration reform. And guess what? Over 70 percent of them love the pope too.
But you know who they don’t love? Donald Trump. The real estate mogul has repeatedly claimed that he is “gonna win the Hispanic vote” despite railing against migrants and threatening to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants as president, but a November 2015 survey from PRRI found that 80 percent of Hispanic voters have an unfavorable opinion of him, 59 percent of whom view him “very” unfavorably.
That makes this an absurdly hard group for Trump win over, especially given that he just picked a public fight with Pope. About building a wall along the border. To keep Hispanic migrants out.
It would appear that tomorrow will, in fact, bring “worries of its own” for Trump as he looks ahead to the general election — potentially “yuge” problems.