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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s struggle in Michigan is being fueled in part by a sudden decline in support among voters who frequently attend church as questions swirl about his character and treatment of women.

Two polls of likely Michigan voters — on Sept. 27-28 and Oct. 10-11, during a tumultuous period in the presidential election — show a 15-percentage-point swing in Democrat Hillary Clinton’s favor among voters who attend church each week.

Two weeks ago, Trump led Clinton among frequent churchgoers, 45 percent to 34 percent, in a poll conducted after the first presidential debate.

Trump now trails Clinton 41 percent to 36 percent among these typically more conservative voters in a poll conducted Monday and Tuesday after revelations of a decade-old recording of Trump’s boasting that his celebrity allows him to grope women.

The sudden swing in a survey released to The Detroit News and WDIV-TV represents a “significant” problem for Trump, who trailed Clinton by nearly 12 percentage points in a four-way race, pollster Richard Czuba said.

“This is an electorate that any Republican candidate has to win,” said Czuba, CEO of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group Inc. “Trump was winning it two weeks ago, and he was winning it by double digits. It says something really major has happened in this group. ... Clearly it points to the release of the tape as a major factor that influenced weekly churchgoers.”

The poll was conducted after Sunday night’s debate, where Trump denied he has ever kissed or groped women without their consent.

On Wednesday, after the poll was conducted, new reports surfaced about women saying Trump inappropriately touched them. Trump vehemently denied the allegations on Thursday, arguing they were part of a “coordinated, vicious attack” by the media and Clinton’s campaign.

Trump’s recorded 2005 conversation with TV host Billy Bush before a cameo appearance in a soap opera included a graphic description of how he said he gropes women without their consent. “Grab them by the (expletive),” he said. “You can do anything.”

Trump repeatedly called his comments “locker room talk” during Sunday’s debate. Clinton said the comments reveal “who Donald Trump is.”

Trump also used the debate to draw attention to decades-old allegations of sexual assault and harassment by former President Bill Clinton, his opponent’s husband. The allegations against Bill Clinton were never proven, though he settled a sexual harassment lawsuit with Paula Jones without admitting wrongdoing for $850,000 in 1998.

Recording confirms opinion

Charles Godbout, a Catholic voter from Empire in Leelanau County, said the 2005 recording that surfaced Friday “pretty much confirmed my opinion of him.”

“I just cannot stomach the guy to tell you the truth,” said Godbout, who attends Mass weekly.

Godbout, 68, said he’s certain fellow Catholics who were supporting Trump might be having second thoughts.

“If they were supporting him, it would have turned them off,” said Godbout, who participated in the poll. “It just goes against their morals.”

Trump’s loss of support among religious voters in Michigan mirrors recent polling data in other states, particularly Utah, where Mormon voters are reportedly bolting from Trump’s coalition for Clinton, independent candidate Evan McMullin and Libertarian Gary Johnson.

Joseph Guzman, co-chair of Trump’s Michigan campaign and a practicing Catholic from Okemos, said there is no evidence he has seen of voters of faith abandoning Trump.

“I’ve not seen anything on the ground showing weakness among evangelicals and Catholics,” said Guzman, an assistant professor of human resources and labor relations at Michigan State University. “On the contrary, I’ve had faith leaders approaching me, wanting to join the campaign.”

Some discount vulgarities

Some conservative voters said they can overlook Trump’s vulgarities because he represents a Republican Party that opposes abortion and supports the right to bear arms.

Jennifer Mackey, a 43-year-old mother of six from Royal Oak, said she heard the Trump recording and said it wasn’t shocking.

“Did it change my opinion that I would further jump off ship and now I’m going to vote for Hillary? Never,” said Mackey, who participated in the poll. “It’s so hypocritical of any Christian to stand up and say ‘They’re so bad for saying something’ because we’ve all said something we regret.”

Stephen Blackstone, 61, of Fenton said he’s less concerned about Trump’s comments on the 11-year-old recording than Clinton’s fuzzy explanation about why she deleted 33,000 emails on her private email server from her time as secretary of state.

“It doesn’t really affect me that much,” said Blackstone, a respiratory therapist and non-denominational Christian who plans to vote for Trump. “People can change in 11 years.”

Remaining undecided

Richard Brooks, a 66-year-old Buddhist from Lansing, also participated in the poll, which did not ask likely voters their particular faith. Participants were asked how often do they “attend church or religious services.”

Brooks said he practices his spirituality daily and one of the tenets of his faith is honesty.

Based on Trump’s outward character, Brooks said he has already eliminated Trump as a candidate he will even consider.

“I think he’s going this to destroy the Republican Party,” he said. “He’s a loser.”

But Brooks said he has concerns about Clinton’s honesty and why she was operating an unsecured private email server in her New York home while sending emails involving national security as secretary of state.

“Hillary’s an insider and I’m sure she’s a good person and everything, but she’s bent over backwards trying to not be truthful about what she’s done,” he said. “She’s gotta give me something in the next debate or I might just forget about voting.”

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3661

Twitter: @ChadLivengood

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