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Kaine Highlights His Catholic Faith On The Trail — But Will It Sway Catholic Voters?


As the campaign goes on, you're going to hear a lot about one candidate's time as a missionary and the importance of religion in his life. Vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine has been very vocal about his Catholic faith, and NPR's Scott Detrow takes a look at whether Kaine can win over the large block of Catholic voters.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Here's Tim Kaine accepting the vice presidential nomination in Philadelphia this week.


TIM KAINE: I went to a Jesuit boys high school, Rockhurst High School.


KAINE: Wow, that's a big line for the Jesuits.

DETROW: Kaine's Catholicism was a big theme in that Wednesday night speech.


KAINE: Now, we had a motto in my school - men for others. And it was there that my faith became something vital, my North Star for orienting my life. And when I left high school, I knew that I wanted to battle for social justice.

DETROW: One of those people in the hall applauding Kaine's Jesuit shout out - Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, another Democrat who went to a school run by the religious order.

BOB CASEY: It might have been one of the first times ever that Jesuits were mentioned from a platform of a national convention.

DETROW: The Catholic vote is pretty big. It usually makes up between 20 and 25 percent of all voters. Casey says there's sometimes some tension between Catholic teaching and Democratic politics. Indeed the church and Democrats are typically on the opposite sides of the debate over abortion rights, but in the Pope Francis era, many Democrats have been embracing the Catholic Church much more than they used to.


BERNIE SANDERS: Pope Francis has called on the world to say, and I quote...

DETROW: Bernie Sanders even left the campaign trail this spring to go speak at the Vatican where he met Pope Francis. A recent Pew poll gives Hillary Clinton a 17-point lead over Donald Trump among Catholic voters, but Casey says you shouldn't read too much into that.

CASEY: There is no Catholic vote. I'm certain of that. Catholics are just like every other group.

DETROW: In the last four presidential races, Catholics have backed the popular vote winner.

GREG SMITH: Yeah, in many ways that's just a reflection of the fact that Catholic voters are a very big, very diverse group that in many ways reflects the overall population.

DETROW: Greg Smith studies Catholic voting trends for the Pew Research Center. He says white Catholics usually back Republican presidential candidates.

SMITH: Hispanic Catholics, in stark contrast, have consistently supported Democratic presidential candidates at rates of two-thirds. Even three quarters of Hispanic Catholics have voted Democratic in recent presidential elections.

DETROW: That's what's happening this year, too. Clinton's big lead among Catholics comes mostly from Hispanic voters. Right now about 80 percent of Republican Catholics support Trump while more than 9 in 10 Democratic Catholics backed Clinton. In other words, they're basically just voting like Republicans and Democrats.

It's clear Democrats think that in a race against Donald Trump, they can win over voters by talking about morals and character, the types of things that active churchgoers probably care about even if they may not move as a large block. That's something that speaker after speaker talked about in this week's convention, and at his first campaign stop today...


KAINE: I bet there were a lot of Pope Francis Catholics here before there was a Pope Francis.


DETROW: Tim Kaine was once again talking up his Catholic background. Scott Detrow, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.