RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination in 2016, he gave special thanks to one faith group, evangelical Christians. This year, President Trump has a different favorite.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I grew up next to a Catholic church in Queens, N.Y. And I saw how much incredible work the Catholic Church did for our community. These are amazing people.
MARTIN: NPR religion reporter Tom Gjelten has been looking into what has changed.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Trump's new interest in Catholic voters is probably the result of realizing what actually got him elected. It was not the evangelicals, says Mark Rozell of George Mason University.
MARK ROZELL: People were quite amazed at the overall impact that the white evangelicals had in the election. But I think what was missed was the critical role of Catholic voters.
GJELTEN: Though he barely appealed to them, Trump managed to win the Catholic vote last time. Former Republican Congressman Tim Huelskamp is a political adviser to a new group, Catholics for Trump.
TIM HUELSKAMP: There was less recognition four years ago. I think many were surprised about what happened in Michigan and in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. It was the Catholic vote that won those states for a Donald Trump.
GJELTEN: Lesson learned. This year, the Trump campaign is focusing less on the evangelical vote and more on Catholics.
BRIAN BURCH: This administration has made a concerted effort to reach out to Catholics in a way that we haven't seen in the past.
GJELTEN: Brian Burch is president of catholicvote.org, a conservative group wholeheartedly supporting Trump's reelection. The group's been around for 15 years. But this year is special, Burch says.
BURCH: We've grown every year. But this year, we grew exponentially.
GJELTEN: Catholicvote.org didn't even endorse anyone in the last presidential election. This year, even with a Catholic candidate on the other side, the group is running ads that leave no doubt where they stand.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Joe Biden would force American Catholics to pay for abortions, sacrificing his Catholic values to kneel before the leftist mob.
GJELTEN: This new push to rally Catholic support for Trump is highly focused. Tim Huelskamp says it's aimed narrowly at the most traditional Catholics, the ones who attend mass regularly and follow church teachings most closely.
HUELSKAMP: I think the campaign is distinguishing Catholics who support the church's position on life, the church's position on religious freedom and on school choice and trying to turn that particular vote out. For Catholics who never attend church, they're going to vote, 3-1, for Joe Biden.
GJELTEN: Having studied the Catholic vote for years, Mark Rozell of George Mason University says it makes sense for Republicans to target their pitch this way rather than just going for Catholics as a whole.
ROZELL: Among those Catholics who regularly attend religious services, they tend to be more conservative politically, vote Republican. But it's religious practice, not religious identity, that really is the cue to how Catholic voters vote.
GJELTEN: Bottom line, the Trump campaign now sees it's not white evangelicals who hold the key to his reelection, it's conservative Catholics. And it's not that hard to identify them and single them out. These Catholics tend to have their own media organizations, charitable foundations and advocacy groups.
CATHLEEN KAVENY: Where conservative Catholics have the edge on more progressive Catholics is that they've set up networks and institutions that allow them to get together.
GJELTEN: Cathleen Kaveny, an expert on law and religion at Boston College, says there's now a well-organized, Catholic right wing.
KAVENY: And my impression is they've got quite a lot of money. Liberal Catholics tend not to have that amount of money.
GJELTEN: There's always been a Catholic vote. These days, it's more important than ever, certainly to President Trump. But no longer is it monolithic. So now the Trump campaign's strategy is break the Catholic vote apart and focus on the bit most likely to follow him.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.