Joe Biden

Former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, gets a hug from Diane Burch of Fort Dodge, Iowa, during a town hall meeting there on Oct. 31. Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Joe Biden took the stage at a Catholic college in Dubuque, Iowa, and spoke of faith and hope and the soul of America – themes that borrow from his religious upbringing that he’s betting will pry a key constituency away from President Trump.

Catholic voters could be a deciding factor in whether Democrats win the White House in 2020. And Biden, a 76-year-old Catholic educated by nuns in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is making an overt attempt to win them back.

Biden’s message has particular resonance in Dubuque, a historically Catholic town on the Mississippi River. It’s a county that voted Democratic for every presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy – the first and only Catholic president – but that supported Donald Trump in 2016.

Trump’s 2016 campaign made outreach to Catholic voters a key part of his strategy – crafted in part by Catholic advisers like Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. He promised to appoint anti-abortion judges, and told Catholics, “I will fight for you.”

His message to Catholics in 2020: Promises kept.

Biden’s approach is a softer sell. He has no official Catholic outreach – or any religious outreach, for that matter. He’s careful to say that he doesn’t seek to impose his religious views on anyone, or make them the basis of public policy. He supports abortion rights, which prompted a priest in South Carolina to refuse him the sacrament of Holy Communion last week.

And yet Biden’s Catholic identity is at the heart of his campaign.

“He practices his faith. He doesn’t proselytize,” said campaign manager Greg Schultz, who is also Catholic. “People see that.”

At 22 percent of the population, Catholics are arguably the largest group of swing voters in the country – in part because they span the political spectrum and usually vote for the winner.

Trump made inroads with Catholic voters in 2016, and may have been the first Republican to do better with Catholics than he did with the electorate at large. Exit polls showed him with a 4-point advantage over Hillary Clinton among Catholic voters, though a later academic survey showed him losing Catholics by 3 points. He lost the popular vote by 2 points.

Trump won in part by turning out white working-class voters, especially in small towns and rural areas in the Midwest. Many of those places also happen to be heavily Catholic.

“It is safe to say that Trump at least neutralized what should have been a Democratic advantage with the Catholic vote,” said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University in Virginia and editor of “Catholics and U.S. Politics After the 2016 Elections.”

But he added that it’s not entirely clear what role Catholic identity may have played. “You’re mixing race, ethnicity, economic status, culture – and then disentangling them and saying Catholicism is the central factor. That’s really hard to do,” Rozell said.

‘ROME OF AMERICA’

Dubuque, population 58,000, is the smallest city in the country to house an archdiocese. Its hills, many churches and two Catholic colleges, Clarke University and Loras College, have also given it the nickname the “Rome of America.”

Dubuque County is 53 percent Catholic, according to a 2010 census of religious adherents – one of 74 predominately Catholic counties in the U.S.

But Dubuque’s population is older and has more whites than the population of Catholics nationwide, which includes people from Latin America, Africa and Asia. “Dubuque Catholics look a lot more like American Catholics used to look,” said David Cochran, a political scientist at Loras College, where Biden spoke.

Like many places, Dubuque has seen a decadeslong decline in church attendance and religious vocations, and parishes and schools have closed and consolidated.

“We’re not as Catholic as we used to be,” said Teri Goodmann, a Dubuque Democrat and Biden family friend since his 1988 presidential run.

Dubuque itself was ground zero in an attempt to micro-target Catholic voters for Trump in 2016. In an interview with a documentary filmmaker last year, Bannon said a group called CatholicVote used geo-fencing technology to find mobile users who attended Catholic churches. “Literally, they can tell who’s been in a Catholic church and how frequently,” he boasted.

On Election Day, Clinton didn’t do as well with Catholics as Barack Obama did in 2012, said Chris Budzisz, a professor and director of the Loras College Poll. In one precinct, Clinton won 58 percent of the vote. Obama had won it with 73%.

EVOLVING STANCE ON ABORTION

The Sunday before he came to Dubuque, Biden campaigned in Florence, South Carolina, where he attended Mass, but a priest, Robert Morey, denied him Communion because of his position on abortion.

Biden has called the episode a personal matter and has declined to discuss it. But his evolving position on abortion continues to draw attention.

In 1982, he voted for a constitutional amendment that would have the effect of overturning the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. In a vice presidential debate against Representative Paul Ryan, a fellow Catholic, in 2012, he said he accepted church teaching on abortion, “but I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews.” And as recently as June, Biden renounced his previous support for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortions.

Biden’s ecumenical approach comes up frequently on the campaign trail. On his way to Dubuque, Biden stopped in Maquoketa, Iowa, where Justin Scott, an atheist activist, asked him if he would have a secular outreach. “We don’t have candidates talking to us,” Scott said.

“Let me make clear to you. I am religious,” Biden responded. “I don’t ask anybody’s religion or if they have a religion. I want to know, what is your moral grounding?”

Biden credits his own grounding to the Sisters of St. Joseph in Scranton. And so when he arrived in Dubuque later that day, his first visit was to a convent. “People ask me what the secret sauce of Dubuque is,” said Goodmann, who introduced Biden to the sisters. “And I say the nuns.”

Two hours later, about 300 people braved an unseasonably cold and snowy night to to see Biden at the Loras College Fieldhouse.

Biden’s standard stump speech is often filled with religious metaphors – but especially so in predominately Catholic areas like Dubuque. A study of the 2012 campaign by political scholars Kevin Coe and Christopher Chapp showed that Biden, then Obama’s vice president, used religious rhetoric more than any national candidate – but was even more likely to do so in counties with large numbers of devout people.

At Loras, Biden quoted Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard that “faith sees best in the dark,” referring not just to his family’s personal tragedies but also how he sees beyond the Trump era. He spoke of the “soul of America.” And when he told a story it was the “honest-to-God truth.”

That kind of language resonates with Catholic voters like Anne Heinz, a 67-year-old Democrat. Even before she knew he was Catholic, Heinz said there was something familiar about Biden that she couldn’t quite identify. “He’s the only guy who can reach me,” she said.

She’s not troubled by the communion flap, which she said reflected more on the South Carolina priest than it did on Biden.

“I’ll tell you what a priest told me today: Dubuque would not have refused him communion,” she said.

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