PAOLI, Pa. — Since the election of Ronald Reagan, white Catholics have flocked to Republican nominees for a raft of reasons, including their stances on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.
But this year, something seems different.
“Trump is the exception to the rule,” Carol Robinson, 67, said as she left an afternoon prayer meeting in this a Philadelphia suburb with other enthusiastic supporters of Hillary Clinton. “He’s a loose cannon.”
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Roman Catholics are the country’s second-largest religious group after evangelical Protestants, and they are as diverse as the country itself, with young liberals, cultural conservatives and, increasingly, Democratic-leaning Hispanics.
But now, the Clinton campaign senses a rare opportunity to block Mr. Trump’s narrow path to victory by making inroads with a core part of the church: white Catholics, a prized group of voters who have defied predictions this year.
Though a string of polls had shown Mr. Trump opening a lead among white Catholics, a new poll released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute showed Mr. Trump hemorrhaging support. The five-day poll, which ended two days after the release of a recording in which Mr. Trump joked about groping women, and before several women came forward to say he had forcibly kissed or touched them, showed him effectively tied with Mrs. Clinton. The poll showed 42 percent of white Catholics supported him, and 46 percent backed her, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.
“That’s not where Trump wants to be in the homestretch, particularly with a core constituency in Midwestern battleground states,” said Robert Jones, a Public Religion Research Institute pollster. He added that white Catholics, much more than the white evangelicals who have largely remained loyal to Mr. Trump, seemed to be defying the Republican Party’s gravitational pull.
Both campaigns see openings: Mr. Trump in hacked emails released last week in which members of the Clinton campaign spoke critically about Catholic conservatism, and Mrs. Clinton in Mr. Trump’s un-churchmanlike behavior and his tussling with Pope Francis.
The pope, on his way home from Mexico in February, suggested that Mr. Trump “is not Christian” if he preferred building barriers over bridges. Mr. Trump, not one to turn the other cheek, responded that Francis’ remarks were “disgraceful.”
The episode did not hurt Mr. Trump’s standing in the Republican primaries; in fact, many Catholics believed the pope was improperly meddling in American politics.
But Francis may be more quietly influencing the Catholic vote in other ways. He has moved the church to emphasize inclusion and the welfare of the poor over divisive issues like abortion and homosexuality. And his personnel changes have effectively left Mr. Trump’s conservative backers without much support from prominent Catholic clergy members.
“It’s a concern among a lot of Catholics that maybe we’re not going to hear the kind of strong message that we heard in past elections,” said Frank Pavone, a Catholic priest who runs an anti-abortion group and is advising Mr. Trump.
In 2004, a powerful group of Catholic archbishops publicly advocated the re-election of President George W. Bush. Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis said that if given the chance, he would deny communion to Mr. Bush’s opponent, Senator John Kerry, because of his abortion stance.
Pope Benedict XVI elevated Archbishop Burke to the rank of cardinal, but Francis has since essentially demoted him from his Vatican position. And when Cardinal Francis George, a combative voice on social issues from his high perch as the leader of the Chicago Archdiocese, took ill in 2014 (he died the next year), Pope Francis replaced him with the more inclusive Blase Cupich, who has focused his energies on climate change, gun control and immigration reform.
The pope announced this month that he would elevate Archbishop Cupich to the rank of cardinal, while passing over the United States’ reigning conservative heavyweight, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, who has remained outspoken in his criticism of Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.
Prominent Catholic lawmakers are now targeting voters on behalf of the Clinton campaign. This month, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, held a round-table discussion with nuns in Dubuque, Iowa. The campaign has also created “heritage” outreach programs to try to appeal to voters with immigrant backgrounds, such as Irish and Italian, who are often Catholic.
The director of the Clinton campaign’s Catholic outreach program, John McCarthy, said that lay Catholic leaders he met with in Dubuque repeatedly said they were uncomfortable with Mr. Trump. “The divisive rhetoric is what is really pushing people away,” Mr. McCarthy said.
But the Trump campaign has done its own outreach.
“I have a message for Catholics: I will be there for you,” Mr. Trump wrote in an open letter to the Annual Catholic Leadership Conference meeting this month in Denver. “I am, and will remain, pro-life. I will defend your religious liberties and the right to fully and freely practice your religion, as individuals, business owners and academic institutions.”
In March, Joseph Cella, a founder of Fidelis, a Catholic advocacy organization, added his name to an open letter calling Mr. Trump “unfit to be president” because his “demagoguery” and “appeals to racial and ethnic fears and prejudice are offensive to any genuinely Catholic sensibility.”
But he said he had undergone a “sincere change of heart and mind” to Mr. Trump’s mission since then, and today, he is the campaign’s liaison to a group of Catholic advisers. On Tuesday, he released a statement calling on Catholics to pray the rosary daily until the election for unity, peace and a Donald Trump victory.
Mr. Cella said he was sticking by Mr. Trump despite the recent revelations of his vulgar comments about women and accusations from several women that he had forcibly touched or kissed them.
On “Face the Nation” on Oct. 9, Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former mayor of New York and a Catholic, who is one of Mr. Trump’s closest confidants, asked the host, John Dickerson, “Ever read ‘The Confessions of St. Augustine’?”
“Men can change, people can change,” Mr. Giuliani said.
Even Catholics who have found Mr. Trump’s language and ideas abhorrent are not necessarily abandoning him. “He’s a child, rude,” said Rose Benner, 85, after she emerged from Mass at St. Patrick Church in Malvern, Pa., one recent morning. “He doesn’t understand other people and he sees women as play toys.”
But, she added, “I’m a Catholic and I’m pro-life. I have to vote for Trump because he will appoint Supreme Court justices. That’s the only reason. My whole family will vote for Trump because of that.”
The Trump campaign is also courting Catholic conservatives by highlighting a recent comment from Mrs. Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine — himself an observant Catholic — that the church will one day support gay marriage. And it is making the most of every mention of Catholicism in the hacked Clinton campaign emails being released by WikiLeaks.
In one 2011 conversation about Rupert Murdoch in particular and prominent Catholics in general, Jennifer Palmieri, who later became the communications director of the Clinton campaign, wrote: “I imagine they think it is the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion. Their rich friends wouldn’t understand if they became evangelicals.”
The Trump campaign has also highlighted a 2012 email urging John D. Podesta, a former president of the Center for American Progress, to “plant the seeds of the revolution” against “Middle Ages dictatorship” within the Catholic church. Mr. Podesta, who is now Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, responded by writing that he and his allies had created groups for just such a purpose.
Veteran church observers have noted that those emails spoke to a longstanding rift within the church between social conservatives who emphasize abortion and liberal Catholics more concerned about social justice.
But at a campaign rally last week in Ocala, Fla., Mr. Trump portrayed the emails as an attack on religion. “They attack Catholics and evangelicals,” he said. “Viciously.”
Mr. Trump himself was not so sensitive to Catholic feelings while on “The Howard Stern Show” in 2013, shortly after Pope Benedict announced he would resign.
“He should just give up and die,” Mr. Trump said, according to a recording obtained by The Washington Post. “He looks so bad.”
The Clinton campaign, noting the silence of many bishops in this election and the candidate’s improving poll numbers, hopes Mr. Trump is so off-putting to white Catholics that they will overlook the emails and Mrs. Clinton’s stances on abortion and other social issues.
Outside Paoli’s Daylesford Abbey, where paintings on the walls for a coming art show include a $10,000 oil of Pope Francis, Ms. Robinson, the Clinton supporter, said she thought Francis had made it easier for her fellow Catholics to turn away from Mr. Trump.
And Tony Prosperi, a sheet metal worker who attended an event last week featuring Senator Tim Kaine, Mrs. Clinton’s running mate, at his union hall in Philadelphia, said Mr. Trump’s fight with the pope had crossed a sacred line.
“It doesn’t matter if you are Catholic,” he said. “There are a few people who you have to respect.”