One of the most notable aspects of the 2016 presidential election was the central role of the media, a trend that has continued in the controversies of the current administration. From scandal stories to lengthy editorials to the “fake news” debate, the media had an enormous presence in this past election cycle, primarily in breaking and circulating details of the allegations and altercations related to both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Yet, as Barna’s election survey revealed—and in spite of increased public focus on political journalism—these reports seem to have had little impact on voters’ decisions in the election.Headline scandals had little impact on voters' decisions in the 2016 election. Click To Tweet
When Barna examined peoples’ reactions to several of the campaign-related headlines that received substantial attention, just less than half of the voters interviewed (46%) said the media had been “fair and objective” in its handling of campaign news. Even so, other data indicates that bias has more sway than fairness, as groups already compelled to vote for Clinton brushed off many of her negative stories, yet were enraged by Trump’s—and vice versa. This should not come as a surprise, perhaps, given how deeply entrenched America’s political and faith segments have become. Unfavorable accounts of either candidate seem to have mostly bounced around their echo chambers, inciting increasing levels of rage toward a candidate they already disapproved of.
Which stories and controversies most impacted Americans’ voting decisions? Barna takes a look, starting with the campaign of the now sitting president.
Trumps’ Most Impactful Campaign Incident: Immigration Comments
Voters report being most significantly impacted by Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants. More than one-third of voters (36%) say this made a major impression upon them. Nearly as many voters (33%) identify his plan to temporarily halt the flow of Muslim refugees into the United States.
The next three events on the list include: the recording of Donald Trump boasting about making unwanted sexual advances toward women (29%), insulting or derogatory names that Donald Trump called his political opponents (28%) and his refusal to release income tax statements (24%). The least impactful situation of those evaluated in the survey was the number of Republican leaders who said they would not vote for Donald Trump, which made a major impression on just one-eighth of the voters (13%).
There were substantial differences in the impact of these stories based upon voters’ party identification, political ideology and faith inclinations. Democrats were most affected by the Trump events. Three of the situations had a major impact on more than four out of 10 Democrats: Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants (45%), the lewd Entertainment Tonight videotape (45%) and his insults of political opponents (43%). Among Independents, 42 percent said that Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants and his plan to halt the flow of Muslim refugees had an effect on them. Among Republicans, more than one-quarter (27%) said this Muslim immigration plan had a major impact on their voting decision.
These events greatly impacted the thinking of voters associated with non-Christian faiths and religious skeptics (those who are atheist, agnostic or generally profess to have no faith), the two faith segments from which a majority opposed his candidacy. (Read more about Barna’s political profiles of faith segments.) Trump’s claims about Mexican immigrants also held more weight than other scandals with these groups (50% religious skeptics, 44% non-Christian faiths), followed by his now notorious comments about women (45% of religious skeptics, 42% non-Christian faiths).
The three Christian-oriented voter segments say they were much less affected by the Trump scandals, and their votes reflected this fact: A majority of each of the three Christian-oriented segments supported Trump. An average of 24% of notionals, 24% of non-evangelical born again Christians and 17% of evangelicals claimed each of the controversies had a major impact. Further, it’s difficult to determine whether the self-reported impact was negative or positive; for example, as reports now show, white evangelicals have been in favor of Trump’s unsuccessful Muslim travel ban proposals.
Unsurprisingly, Hispanic adults were significantly affected by Trump’s statements about Mexican immigrants (45%), though at least a third of white (34%) and black Americans (35%) also say his derogatory words impacted them. Similarly, the audio of Trump admitting to making unwanted sexual advances on women impacted 33 percent of women, significantly more than it affected men (25%). Interestingly, women voters were still more influenced by the denigration of Mexican immigrants (42%) and Trump’s plan to halt the flow of Muslim refugees (36%).
Clinton’s Most Impactful Campaign Incident: The Emails
The Barna survey also explored the reaction of voters to specific stories related to Hillary Clinton. The event that affected her campaign the most was also the longest-lasting of the media emphases, and the one some theorize lost her the election: her use of a private email server for transmitting classified documents and related efforts to destroy the evidence. Overall, one-third of voters (33%) say that situation had a major impact on their voting decisions.The event that affected Clinton the most among voters was her use of a private email server. Click To Tweet
One out of four voters (25%) say the revelation that Clinton received numerous six-figure speaking fees from Wall Street firms, foreign governments and special interest groups had a major impact on them. The same proportion (25%) mention the discovery of large contributions made by foreign governments to the Clinton Foundation during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State.
Roughly one out of five voters admits their voting decision was influenced by Clinton’s support of late-term, partial-birth abortion (22%), her calling half of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables” (22%) and her comment at a private Wall Street gathering that her public statements do not always match her private plans (20%).
Again, reactions were closely related to other factors, such as people’s party identification, political ideology, and even their faith leanings. Most of these stories influenced only 10 percent or less of Democrats—with the exception of one: Clinton’s beliefs on abortion. Though, as with evangelicals being influenced by Trump’s desire to stop the flow of Muslim refugees, this self-reported impact could reflect on Democrats having a positive reaction to a pro-choice stance. Meanwhile, even the least influential Clinton situation for Republicans was still listed by about one out of four of them, and the other alleged scandals had a major impact on as many as half of the GOP voters. Independent voters were substantially more influenced by the Clinton-related events than were Democrats, but slightly less affected than were Republicans. On average, only 8 percent of Democrats said Clinton’s behaviors had a major effect on their thinking compared to more than a third of Republicans (36%) and Independents (33%).
Evangelicals were the faith segment most likely to be substantially affected by the major Clinton stories. On average, each of the situations surveyed had a major impact on half of them (50%). The headlines with the greatest impact were the email situation (65%) and Clinton’s support of few limits to abortion (53%).
The email crisis also had the greatest effect on non-evangelical born agains (38%) and on the notional Christians (34%). Among voters associated with non-Christian faiths, Clinton’s radical support for abortion had a lot of bearing on their voting decisions. The email controversy had the greatest impact on skeptics’ votes (17%).
Republicans were pretty influenced by the “basket of deplorables” comment (29%, compared to 10% of Democrats), though Independents were equally so (30%). One in four females (24%) said Clinton’s pro-choice views impacted their vote, while one in five males (19%) reported the same.
What the Research Means
“Voter reaction to these negative stories was based more on whether they planned to support the candidate in question than on the basis of an objective response to the behavior in question,” states researcher George Barna, who served as a special analyst for Barna’s election surveys. “Democrats were willing to overlook Clinton’s behavior but were horrified by Trump’s; Republicans were forgiving of Trump’s behavior but not Clinton’s. Independent voters made up their minds about the scandals largely on the basis of their political ideology, with liberal Independents excusing the Clinton scandals and conservative Independents excusing the Trump scandals. In the end, the revelations about the unfortunate behavior of each candidate had a surprisingly limited impact on people’s voting choices. The information served more to reinforce pre-existing voting plans than to help voters make an objective choice between the major-party candidates.”
Barna also indicates surprise in finding that only 5 percent of evangelicals state that the videotape of Donald Trump discussing his attitudes about women and his sexual advances toward women had a major impact on their thinking. “That is the very type of event about which evangelicals typically express concern,” he notes. “Their muted reaction in this case seems like a political rather than spiritually driven response. After all, the least impactful of the Clinton scandals had more than five times as many evangelicals citing it as a major factor than was true for the Trump sexual scandal. That conflicts with the usual evangelical point of view.”Voter reaction to scandals was more about existing support than an objective response to behavior. Click To Tweet
About the Research
This research was conducted by the Barna Group using an online survey with a nationally representative sample of adults 18 and older. A total of 1,281 adults were interviewed, resulting in 1,028 registered voters participating in the survey. The survey was completed online in two waves, fielded from November 4 through 6, 2016, and then from November 9 through 16, 2016. The estimated maximum sampling error for the aggregate sample is plus or minus 4 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level. The sampling error estimate is higher for subgroups within the total sample.
The study divided respondents into five unique faith segments based on their religious beliefs. The segments were defined as follows:
Evangelicals met nine specific theological criteria. They say they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today,” that their faith is very important in their life today; believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior; strongly believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; firmly believe that Satan exists; strongly believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; strong agree that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; strong assert that the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent on church attendance, the denominational affiliation of the church attended or self-identification. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.” They represent 6% of the adult population.
Non-evangelical born again Christians say they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. However, they do not accept all of the remaining seven conditions that categorize someone as an evangelical. They constitute about one-quarter of the adult population.
Notional Christians are people who consider themselves to be Christian but they have not made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” or believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. Slightly more than four out of ten adults are part of the notional Christian segment.
The Other faith segment refers to individuals who associate with a faith other than Christianity. Among the most common of those faith groups included within that segment were Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. This segment represents 6% of the US adult public.
Skeptics are individuals who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, or who indicate that they do not believe in the existence of God or have no faith-related ties or interests. The fastest-growing of the faith segments, skeptics are currently approaching one-fifth of the adult population.
Barna Group is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.