Pope Francis, Donald Trump Show Two Paths to High Poll Numbers

Pope Francis rides among the Catholic faithful on September 20 after holding the first Mass of his visit to Cuba, in Havana's Revolution Square. Stringer/Reuters

After bingeing on vitriol, name-calling and racial divisions this summer, the American political class—and the public at large—could use a good detox. And there's no one who is more of an antidote to the Donald Trump-style politics than Pope Francis, who's making his first visit to the United States this week.

The humble Argentine Jesuit, who is scheduled to touch down in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday and address the U.S. Congress on Thursday, is everything the billionaire media tycoon is not. Where Trump is polarizing, topping the polls both as the most popular and most unpopular Republican candidate, Francis is unifying. "Everyone should pause for a moment in awe of just how extremely popular Pope Francis is," Stephen Schneck, the director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University said at a press conference in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. "I can't think of anything else like it in the course of our public lives."

The pope, who has dramatically shifted the Vatican's message in just a little over two years on the job, gets high marks from both Democratic and Republican Catholics in America, new polling shows. A study conducted by YouGov for the nonpartisan advocacy group Faith in Public Life and Catholic University found that 83 percent of Catholic likely voters had a favorable opinion of Pope Francis. And a Monmouth University poll found that a majority of Americans—51 percent—believe the pope is moving the Catholic Church in the right direction, compared to just 13 percent who say it's going in the wrong direction. There are partisan differences, certainly, with Catholic Republicans three times as likely as Democrats to say Francis's leadership is pushing the church in the "wrong direction." Even so, just 15 percent of Catholic Republicans gave that response, a strikingly low rate given the country's partisan polarization and some of the controversial issues (climate change, immigration policy, Cuba) that the pope has weighed in on.

Francis has chosen to emphasize combating widespread poverty, He's spoken out about wealth inequality, visited homeless shelters and had showers set up in St. Peter's Square so homeless people could come wash themselves. In an interview this month with the Portuguese radio station Radio Renascença, the pope lamented that "today's dominant economic system has removed the person from the center, and at the center is the god of money." Contrast that with Trump's declaration at his campaign launch that, "I'm really rich.… And by the way, I'm not even saying that [as a] brag—that's the kind of mindset, that's the kind of thinking you need for this country."

Francis has also weighed in on the plight of migrants, both those fleeing Central America for the United States and, more recently, those flooding Europe from the war in Syria. It's just one of many reasons he's beloved by many Latinos in the United States (hailing from South America certainly doesn't hurt, either). Eighty-four percent of Latino Catholics have a favorable opinion of the pope, the YouGov survey found. And as John Gehring, the Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life, observed Wednesday, "The future of both the Catholic Church and politics" in the United States "is a Latino future."

Trump hasn't gotten that message. The man who wants to build a "a great, great wall on our southern border" and make the Mexican government foot the bill is, not surprisingly, pretty unpopular with Latinos in the United States, Catholic or not. Seventy percent reported a negative view of Trump in a recent MSNBC/Telemundo/Marist poll, including 60 percent whose views were "very negative." That hasn't hurt the GOP frontrunner in the primary race, but it could present a stark problem in the general election.

What could hurt Trump more immediately: bashing the pope the same way he insults secular leaders, his own GOP rivals, or whole classes of people like Mexicans. "Their perspectives on the world and how things should work couldn't possibly be more different," mused journalist Melinda Henneberger, former Rome bureau chief for The New York Times, during Wednesday's press conference. "So I'm wondering if Trump is finally going to find that third rail in the pope."