Taking stock of the 2016 election

When it comes to choosing a president, was this ugly electoral process the best America could do?

In the election of 2016 the discussion of issues often took a back seat to name-calling and allegations of personal misconduct. Polls showed both major party candidates to be highly unpopular. Many people apparently voted as they did less to support one candidate than to oppose the other.

Late in the campaign, with Donald Trump mired in accusations of sexual misconduct, FBI director James Comey announced that the FBI had found more emails with a possible bearing on its probe of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State. But two days before the election, Comey said the new find did not cause him to change his earlier recommendation against taking legal action.

And in this poisoned atmosphere, Trump, confounding pollsters and pundits, won the election despite losing the popular vote to Clinton.


Self-identified Catholics, 23 percent of the electorate, backed Trump 52 percent to 45 percent. But within that figure there was a huge split between white Catholics (60 percent for Trump) and Latino Catholics (67 percent for Clinton). Up to this election, Catholics had backed the winner of the popular vote in every presidential election since 1972. Exit polls four years ago found Catholics supporting Barack Obama 50 percent to 48 percent over Mitt Romney.

Among other religious groups this year, 81 percent of white evangelicals backed Trump. For Protestants overall, the figure was 58 percent. In Utah, Mormons went 46 percent for Trump, 27 percent for Clinton, and 21 percent for independent candidate Evan McMullin. Jews voted 71 percent to 24 percent for Clinton.

By church attendance, the breakdown was: weekly — 56 percent Trump, 40 percent Clinton; monthly — 49 percent Trump, 46 percent Clinton; a few times a year — 47 percent Trump, 48 percent Clinton; and never — 31 percent Trump, 62 percent Clinton.

Social conservatives backed Trump largely for his stand on abortion. Although at one time he described himself as pro-choice, he said during the campaign he now opposes most abortions, except in cases of rape, incest and protecting the mother’s life.

Issues and challenges

The president-elect has promised to name only pro-life judges to the Supreme Court and has gone so far as to publish the names of jurists from among whom he said he would make his selection. One seat on the court is now open — that occupied by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February — and President Obama’s nomination of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland has been stalled by Republicans in the Senate. In view of the election outcome, it presumably will remain so until Trump takes office and gets to name his own candidate.

On gay rights issues, Trump said during the campaign that he supports traditional marriage and would push for a bill to shield individuals and groups with conscientious objections to same-sex marriage from federal pressure to cooperate with it. In an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired Nov. 13, Trump said same-sex marriage was “settled. It’s law. It was settled in the Supreme Court.”

On immigration, Trump split sharply with the official position of the Church, including Pope Francis, who repeatedly has advocated a generous approach to migrants and opposed the idea of raising walls against them. The president-elect made building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border — with Mexico paying for it — one of his signature issues and proposes to round up and deport many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

Over and above social issues and immigration, there is no shortage of urgent challenges facing the next president and the 115th Congress. Among them: shaping U.S. policy toward increasingly aggressive Russia and China and nuclear-armed North Korea; coping with the volatile situation in the Middle East; repelling militant Islamic extremism; warding off foreign and domestic terrorism; and enhancing the nation’s cybersecurity, together with problems that range from racial tensions to trade policy and patching up or replacing the Affordable Care Act to keeping Social Security afloat.

Republicans retained control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. But it remains to be seen what Trump’s legislative agenda will actually look like or how much success he will have in pushing it in Congress, where his relations even with many GOP members — notable among them Speaker of the House Paul Ryan — are strained.

Role of religion

The campaign of 2016 will be long remembered for many things, among them a media environment in which 24/7 journalism and tweeting came into their problematic own, the boisterous and sometimes rowdy Trump rallies, and a video of pneumonia-stricken Clinton collapsing into an SUV. Many observers believed voluminous and often uncritical coverage of Trump during the primaries helped him win the GOP nomination.

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In the end, though, the campaign’s most remarkable aspect may have been the unpopularity of both major party’s candidates.

Polls reported during the campaign by the Pew Research Center found that among people leaning toward Trump or Clinton, nearly a third said opposition to the other candidate was a major factor in how they would vote. A frequently heard refrain was of a choice between the lesser of two evils.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia summed up the negativity like this: “A friend describes the choice facing voters in November this way: a vulgar, boorish lout and disrespecter of women, with a serious impulse control problem; or a scheming, robotic liar with a lifelong appetite for power and an entourage riddled with anti-Catholic bigots.”

Religion played a large part in the contest, with much attention devoted to Trump’s support among evangelicals. Clinton’s Methodist faith also came in for substantial media notice.

The Catholic Church received its share of attention, or more. Clinton running-mate Tim Kaine spoke often of his Catholicism while supporting legalized abortion and gay marriage. Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, called Kaine an “orthodox” Democrat “but a cafeteria Catholic” with a pick-and-choose approach to Church teaching.

Kaine’s GOP counterpart, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, also presented problems for the Church. Pence is a cradle Catholic who now worships in an evangelical church.

Many Catholics were angered by hacked emails to Clinton campaign officials, including chairman John Podesta, in which activists shared thoughts on a left-leaning “revolution” in the Church. The emails were published by Wikileaks.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, then-president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, fired back at unnamed persons who “sought to interfere in the internal life of the Church for short-term political gain.”

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.
Church leaders react
We send our best wishes to the new president that his administration may truly be fruitful. And we also assure him of our prayers that the Lord would enlighten and sustain him in his service to his country naturally, but also in serving the well-being and peace of the world.