America’s Faith Segments Are Divided on Presidential Race


Research Releases in Culture & Media • February 25, 2016

Faith, in a stunning variety of manifestations, has become a focal point of the 2016 presidential election. Virtually every major candidate in both parties has engaged in conversations about their own faith and that of the nation. Several candidates have made their faith a central component of their campaigns. Faith leaders from across the country have been endorsing candidates or commenting on their positions related to critical issues. Even the Pope has been dragged into the contest!

But how do people from different faith groups in the US respond to the presidential race? That is one of the central questions addressed in the first of a series of nationwide surveys undertaken by the Barna Group.

The survey found that the widely-reported gaps in candidate preference based on party affiliation, political ideology, race, and age are not the only schisms making the 2016 campaign such fascinating political theater. According to Barna’s data, the five unique personal faith segments in America – evangelicals, non-evangelical born again Christian, notional Christians, people associated with non-Christian faiths, and religious skeptics – hold substantially different attitudes and candidate preferences.

People of Faith and the Nomination Race

After the votes were tallied in the first three primary states, the slate of candidates still seeking the GOP nomination has been sliced from the original 17 hopefuls to five. Voters’ impressions and preferences regarding those candidates varied across the various faith groups studied.

Survey respondents were asked to indicate their impression of each candidate. Using the endpoints of the scale (i.e., very favorable and very unfavorable), the difference between the two percentages provides a “net” score1. (For example, if 23% of people indicated their impression of a candidate as “very unfavorable,” while 25% of people indicated “very favorable” for the same candidate, the net score would be plus 2).

Those net scores show how divided the nation is – and how dissatisfied Americans are with the quality of the candidates running for the presidency. Among all US registered voters, not a single candidate had a positive net score – meaning that each candidate generated a higher number of “very unfavorable” than “very favorable” opinions. The best net favorability scores were accorded to Bernie Sanders (net minus 7), and Marco Rubio (net minus 9). At the other end of the spectrum, the worst net favorable ratings were awarded to Donald Trump (net minus 32) and Ted Cruz (net minus 20).

But the picture changes from faith group to faith group. Among evangelicals, the best net favorability scores were associated with Ben Carson (plus 35), Rubio (plus 27) and Ted Cruz (plus 26). The worst score, by a long shot, went to Hillary Clinton (minus 61). It is worth noting that evangelicals gave both Trump (minus 38) and Sanders (minus 30) overwhelmingly negative favorability ratings.

Non-evangelical born again Christians (those who have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today, and believe when they die they will go to Heaven, but are not evangelical) had somewhat different views. The best ratings were given to Rubio (minus 1), followed closely by Cruz (minus 5) and Carson (minus 5). The lowest scores went to Trump (minus 30), and Clinton (minus 24). Note that this segment did not have generally positive views of any candidate.

Notional Christians (those 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) gave their best favorability ratings to John Kasich (minus 7) and Rubio (minus 7). Cruz and Trump received the lowest ratings from these voters.

Adults who are active in faiths other than Christianity (such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism) took a distinctly different view of the candidates. They handed two of them – Sanders and Clinton – positive ratings overall (plus 10 and plus 2, respectively). The most negative ratings from this group went to Trump (minus 42), Cruz (minus 31), and Carson (minus 28).

Spiritual skeptics (such as atheists and agnostics) were also unique in their favorability profile. Skeptics had a positive view of Sanders (net plus 20), but were less favorable of Clinton (net score of minus 7) and much less favorable of Trump (minus 49), Cruz (minus 42), and Carson (minus 41).

The picture changes again when we eliminate the effect of partisanship and examine favorability scores within party lines – and especially when we consider people’s faith alignments. For instance, Republican voters who are born again Christians had the most favorable views of Ted Cruz (a net favorability rating of plus 27 points) and Marco Rubio (plus 22); a moderately favorable view of Ben Carson (plus 14); and were indifferent to Donald Trump (plus 1), largely due to the negative views of him held by evangelicals. John Kasich was the only candidate that born again Republicans gave an unfavorable rating (minus 16).2

Among the non-born again Republicans (notional Christians, people associated with non-Christian faiths, and religious skeptics) a very different profile emerged. Marco Rubio received the best net favorability score (plus 13), followed by Trump (plus 8) and Cruz (plus 7). Both Carson (minus 5) and Kasich (minus 3) generated unfavorable scores.

There were substantially different views expressed by Protestants and Catholics, too, with the two groups agreeing only on their views of Rubio (positive) and Trump (indifferent). Protestants were quite positive about Cruz (plus 24) and Carson (plus 14) while Catholics disliked Carson (minus-14) and were indifferent to Cruz (plus 1). Both faith families disliked Kasich.

Practicing Christians (people who attend church regularly, say their religious faith is very important in their life, and pray at least once a week) were generally very similar in the favorability ratings to those awarded by the aggregate born again segment, with one significant distinction. They clearly dislike Donald Trump, awarding him a minus 15 net score (compared to a plus 1 among all born again Republicans).

Among the Democrats, every religious segment studied gave Hillary Clinton strongly positive net scores, ranging from plus 23 among skeptics to plus 48 among practicing Christians. Appreciation for Bernie Sanders was more reserved, with the notable exception of skeptics, who gave him a plus 47 net score. Also notice that the positive score given to Sanders by skeptics was double the net score awarded by them to Clinton. What’s interesting to note here is that democrats overall seem to like their candidates more than republicans, with generally higher favorability across the board.

Voting Preferences

Asked directly which candidate they would likely support if the election were held now, adults aligned with the Democratic Party were mostly supportive of Hillary Clinton. Nearly two-thirds of the born again Christians who are Democrats (63%) supported her over Bernie Sanders. A smaller majority of the non-born again Democrats (54%) gave her an edge, but that hides the differences between the three faith niches that comprise that group. Specifically, Notional Christians and adults associated with non-Christian faiths both sided with Clinton (61% and 56%, respectively) but the Skeptics preferred Sanders (51%). Protestants (66%) were slightly more likely than Catholics (59%) to vote for Clinton. Practicing Christians who are Democrats also chose Clinton by a 4:1 margin (69%).

Among the adults aligned with the Republican Party, the Trump juggernaut seems to have won over a plurality of people from each segment – except evangelicals and practicing Christians. Among evangelicals, voters were split between Cruz (38%) and Carson (35%). Rubio only attracted 14% and Trump got 11%. Cruz won over practicing Christians by a comfortable margin with 30% to Carson’s 20% and Trump’s 18%. Rubio attracted 15% of those active Christians.

Despite a common commitment to Christ, non-evangelical born again voters showed little resemblance to the preferences of their evangelical brethren. Among the non-evangelical born again public Trump was the clear favorite (38%), equaling the support for Cruz (23%) and Carson (15%) combined. The gap between each segments’ voting preferences was substantial: a 27-point difference regarding Trump, 14 points related to Rubio, eight points concerning Cruz, and seven points associated with Carson.

Among notional Christians, Trump was the favorite (43%), holding a comfortable lead over Rubio (26%), with Cruz a distant third (15%). Among the two segments that reject Christianity (i.e., people from other faiths plus skeptics) Trump had his highest level of support (46%) and his biggest lead (a 23-point margin over Rubio’s 23%).

Comparing the views of Protestant and Catholic voters, among the Republicans it is clear that the two candidates that appeal most to Catholics are Trump (44%) and Rubio (22%). Protestants are more divided. Although Trump leads among them (29%), he has stiff competition from Cruz (24%) and Carson (21%). Rubio, despite his frequent mentions of his faith in Christ and the importance of his religious beliefs, has generated support among just 15% of Protestants.

Commentators have noted that to date Trump has failed to win a majority of votes in any of the three states that have cast votes. Trump does not have support from a majority of any religious segment, either, although he comes close among all non-born again Republicans (46%).

Reasons for Supporting a Candidate

Having identified the candidate they would most likely support, respondents were then asked to explain the primary reason behind that support. There were several dozen reasons offered by people, but only two of those were listed by at least 10% of the public: leadership ability (11%) and experience (11%). Other reasons that were mentioned by at least 5% of the voters surveyed included being honest and trustworthy (9%), caring about people like the respondent (8%), the candidate’s position on economic affairs (8%), the candidate’s political ideology (7%), their character (6%), intelligence (5%), and positions on moral issues (5%). Five percent also chose a specific candidate as the lesser of all evils, noting that they disliked the alternative choices.

Once again, there were substantial differences in the motivations behind the candidate selections of people based upon their faith group. Here is a comparison of the reasons for their candidate selection, showing the reasons that were chosen by 10% or more of the people in the specified faith group.

  • Evangelicals were most likely to choose a candidate because of his or her character (26%), positions on moral issues (19%), and leadership ability (15%).
  • Non-evangelical born again voters were looking for experience (14%) and the candidate’s position on economic matters (12%).
  • Notional Christians sought candidates on the basis of experience (13%), being honest and trustworthy (13%), and leadership ability (12%).
  • Voters aligned with a non-Christian faith were most concerned about the candidate’s ideology (12%) and positions on moral issues (12%).
  • Skeptics paid closest attention to whether a candidate seemed to care about people like them (12%), his or her ideology (12%), and leadership ability (10%).

Among the motivations for choosing a candidate that were not important to at least 5% of the respondents were: positions on immigration (4%) or national security (4%), and electability (2%).

Each significant candidate has a unique map of attractive features in the eyes of supporters. For instance, on the Republican side Donald Trump’s primary appeal relates to perceived leadership (a trait ascribed to him by 16% of his supporters), his positions on the economy (13%), and being honest (7%). Marco Rubio is most likely to attract people because he is viewed as honest and trustworthy (21%), a strong leader (12%), consistently conservative (11%), has good character (10%), and is preferable to the other choices (10%). Ted Cruz appeals to his supporters on the basis of his character (13%), ability to lead (13%), being honest and trustworthy (8%), and caring about people like the respondent (7%).

Among the Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton’s appeal comes from her experience (cited by 22% of her supporters as their motivation), leadership ability (13%), and for caring about people like the respondent (8%). Bernie Sanders attracted voters because they perceive that he cares about people like them (22%), they relate to his ideology (16%), believe he is honest and trustworthy (9%), and they appreciate both his intelligence (7%) and his experience (7%).

The two attributes that emerged as important for voters to sense in a candidate were leadership ability and being honest and trustworthy. While experience ranked high on the list overall, when Hillary Clinton’s support is removed from the equation – one-quarter of which was based on her level of experience – experience as a compelling attribute was not a top-shelf attribute of interest to other voters.

What The Research Means

Barna Group founder and former President George Barna will be our special correspondent for the 2016 election, providing commentary and analysis on the race right up to Election Day in November. Upon analyzing the data, he indicated that the way candidates emphasize particular attributes and concerns for voters to ponder will make a big difference in the nomination and election processes. As an example, he discussed how public perceptions are affecting several candidates.

“Messaging and positioning are of great importance in these campaigns, especially since most of the people voting are relatively poorly informed about both issues and candidates. Driving home a specific message or image that people believe, recall, and act upon can spell the difference between victory and defeat.”

George Barna provided examples of this point from the research. “If Sanders can persuade the voting public that Clinton’s experience is less important than being honest and trustworthy, she will be in trouble. About one-quarter of her supporters choose her because of her experience, but only 3% select her because of her honesty. Yet, being honest and trustworthy is generally viewed by voters as among the most critical characteristics in their candidate selection process. That is certainly a point of vulnerability for Clinton.”

“Similarly,” Barna continued, “if Rubio’s competitors can convince his current supporters that he is ideologically indistinguishable from them, and that voting for him as the lesser of evils is an inappropriate approach to voting, that could wipe out close to one-quarter of his support. His biggest strength is the image of trustworthiness and honesty. If his competitors were to neutralize that perception, Rubio would struggle to stay afloat in the race.”

George Barna also pointed out that people’s religious convictions cause them to seek different combinations of attributes in candidates. Each of the faith groups has a unique lens through which they view the campaign,” he explained. “Evangelicals, whose faith hinges on obedience to God’s commands, are far more interested in the character of candidates than any other segment. They are also much less likely to be focused on the electability or experience of candidates. In contrast, the non-evangelical born again and Notional Christians – groups not as devoted to biblical applications to every aspect of life – are more focused on pragmatic outcomes than theological foundations. Consequently, it is not surprising to see them elevate the importance of matters such as accomplishments and electability

“Voters connected to non-Christian faiths are most interested in electability, the ideology of a candidate, and their positions on moral issues. Unlike evangelicals, who share a deep interest in moral positions, the non-Christians voters are seeking someone who is open-minded about matters of morality. Skeptics, whose theology leads to an emphasis on providing for and protecting oneself and making the most of the moment, emerged as the faith segment most supportive of candidates deemed to care for people like themselves, those whose ideology parallels that of the Skeptic, and candidates possessing above-average intelligence. They were also among the voters least interested in the integrity of the candidate and showed relatively less interest in candidates’ positions on issues.”

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About the Research

This research was conducted by the Barna Group using an online poll, a nationally representative sample of adults 18 and older. A total of 869 registered voters participated in the survey, which was conducted from January 28 through February 4, 2016. The estimated maximum sampling error for this study is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level.

The study divided respondents into five unique faith segments based upon their religious beliefs. People who are aligned with faith groups other than Christianity included anyone associated with a religious community or perspective besides Christianity, such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The other four 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.”

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.

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.

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.

About Barna Group

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.

If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each update on the latest research findings from Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org).

© 2016 by Barna Group.

The survey used a four-point Likert scale, assigning the labels “very favorable,” “somewhat favorable,” “somewhat unfavorable,” and “very unfavorable” to the response options. We use the high-intensity endpoints in this analysis to assess the views of those who are most likely to act upon those opinions.

Statistics for evangelicals, people of non-Christian faiths, and skeptics are not shown in the Republican analysis due to statistically small sub-samples, although their views are included in other segments such as born again Christians and non-born again Christians. Evangelicals and people from non-Christian faith groups are not shown in the Democrat analysis due to statistically small sub-samples although their views are included in some of the other segments listed.)

Photo by Gage Skidmore (Wiki Commons)


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