Oct 4, 2011

From the Archives

Barna Survey: Americans Think Obama is the Smartest and Most Honest Major Candidate

With various national surveys (including those by the Barna Group) showing the 2012 prospects for victory by Barack Obama currently stronger than – or at least equal to – those of various Republican candidates, new questions arise as to what is propelling people’s voting decisions. With consistent and widespread criticism of Mr. Obama’s performance in office, and coast-to-coast fears about the future, what provides the impetus for re-electing America’s first black president?

In past presidential election studies the Barna Group has confirmed that people are significantly affected by the party identification of a candidate and by his stands on one or more critical issues. In addition, there are several character or competency qualities that voters often evaluate when selecting their preferred candidate. In a new nationwide survey conducted by the Barna Group, four such attributes were evaluated in relation to President Obama and two of the leading Republican candidates: Governors Perry and Romney.

Three Out of Four for Obama
The four factors tested in the survey were people’s perceptions of each candidate’s honesty, intelligence, philosophy of government, and leadership ability.

The public awarded Mr. Obama the best scores for three of the four attributes tested. The exception was leadership ability, on which Mr. Romney came out on top and Mr. Perry was tied with Mr. Obama. In addition, the results showed that Mr. Romney polled better than Mr. Perry on each of the four attributes, though the margins were small.

Looking at each of the factors evaluated, Mr. Obama received the highest scores for perceived honesty. Overall, 24% rated him as being “excellent” in this regard and another 24% said he was “good.” That compares to Mr. Romney’s ratings of 9% excellent and 27% good, and Mr. Perry’s scores of 6% excellent and 25% good.

Mr. Obama’s intelligence was rated “excellent” by 39%, and “good” by 29%. That topped the ratings received by Mr. Romney (17% excellent, 40% good) and Mr. Perry (14% excellent, 28% good).

A much closer competition concerned the perceived philosophy of government embraced by each man. Mr. Obama had the highest ratings (19% excellent, 26% good), followed by Mr. Romney (9% and 30%, respectively) and Mr. Perry (7% and 25%, respectively). In the aggregate, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney had essentially identical mean scores due to the larger proportion of people who rated Mr. Obama’s philosophy of government as “not too good” or “poor” (which were the bottom two choices on the five-point scale).

On the matter of leadership ability, Mr. Obama had the highest “top box” score (17% “excellent”) along with an additional 25% awarding a “good” rating – a total of 42% who gave him an above average score. However, while only 10% said Mr. Romney’s leadership abilities were excellent, another 36% described them as good, giving him a combined 46% above average rating. Twelve percent gave Mr. Perry the highest rating, followed by 29% who said his leadership abilities were good, for a score that was statistically even with that of the incumbent.

Evangelicals and Skeptics Beg to Differ
The faith community had somewhat divergent views of the qualities of the candidates. The groups that stood out the most were evangelicals and skeptics (i.e., atheists and agnostics) – groups that, in some ways, are polar opposites spiritually.

Among evangelicals the candidate with the top score was Mr. Perry in all four categories – leadership (30% excellent versus 9% for each of his two peers); honesty (26% excellent, compared to 18% for Mr. Obama and 9% for Mr. Romney); intelligence (42% excellent rating, dwarfing the 26% given to Mr. Obama and 20% to Mr. Romney); and philosophy of government 25% excellent, 15% for Mr. Obama, 6% for Mr. Romney). Note that on all four attributes, evangelicals rated Mr. Romney last (although his scores tied him with Mr. Obama regarding leadership ability).

In contrast, among skeptics Mr. Obama was the top-rated individual on all four attributes – and, in three cases, by some of the widest margins awarded by any religious segment. The most competitive evaluation related to leadership ability, for which only 15% of skeptics gave Mr. Obama an “excellent” rating compared to a statistically-equivalent 12% for Mr. Romney and 8% for Mr. Perry. The “above average” score (i.e., excellent plus good) gave Mr. Obama top standing among the skeptics (43% vs. 35% for Mr. Romney, 26% for Mr. Perry).

Table Notes:

  • Mean based on a five-point scale; “excellent” worth four points, “good” worth three points, “fair” worth two points, “not too good” worth one point, and “poor” worth zero points.
  • Percentages based on responses providing a substantive response; “don’t know” responses were excluded from the base for calculations.
  • Total sample size was 1,010 adults.


Views of Other Faith Groups
The Barna survey explored the reactions of more than two dozen different faith segments. Here are some of the other findings.

  • Among Catholics, who historically tend to register with, vote for, or lean toward candidates aligned with the Democratic Party, neither of the Republican contenders came close to matching views of Mr. Obama’s standing in relation to the four attributes. The biggest gaps related to perceived honesty (a 15-point top-box margin over Mr. Romney, 20-point lead over Mr. Perry) and intelligence (a 27-point margin over Mr. Romney, 33-point gap over Mr. Perry). The numbers were much closer regarding the “excellent” scores Catholics awarded to the candidates in relation to leadership ability (18% for Mr. Obama, 10% for Mr. Perry, 9% for Mr. Romney) and philosophy of government (15% for Mr. Obama, 8% for Mr. Romney, 7% for Mr. Perry).
  • Protestants generally gave Mr. Obama the best evaluations in terms of honesty, intelligence, and holding the best philosophy of government. Mr. Perry was closest to the front-runner on all three factors. Regarding leadership ability, Mr. Obama and Mr. Perry had virtually identical scores, both of which were significantly better than those given to Mr. Romney.
  • Among Protestants there is a discernible division in perspective between those who attend mainline churches and those who are part of non-mainline congregations. As might be expected, mainline church people gave Mr. Obama the highest ratings on three of the four factors; the exception was leadership ability, for which Mr. Perry received the highest marks. Unexpectedly, non-mainline Protestants awarded Mr. Obama the highest “excellent” ratings on all four attributes. However, when their “above average” figures are examined (excellent plus good), the standings change. Mr. Obama received the highest above average scores for honesty; was tied with Mr. Perry for top status on intelligence, was tied with Mr. Romney for second place (behind Mr. Perry) in leadership abilities, and was last in regard to philosophy of government (led by Mr. Perry).
  • Within the segment of voters who were registered Republicans, slightly more than half were also born again Christians. Among the born again Republicans, Mr. Perry placed first on all four attributes, Mr. Romney was second, and Mr. Obama was a distant last on each attribute. The average gap between the “excellent” scores for Mr. Perry and Mr. Obama was 21 percentage points.
  • Among registered Democrats about one-third were born again Christians. By overwhelming margins, those born again Democrats were most impressed with Mr. Obama in all four categories. The gap in the “excellent” ratings between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney (who was his closest rival on each factor) was 41 percentage points related to honesty; 49 points regarding intelligence; 19 points on governance philosophy; and 28 points in terms of leadership ability.
  • Three out of every ten independent voters were born again Christians. Within that group Mr. Obama fared well, receiving the best evaluations in terms of honesty (double the “excellent” rating given to Mr. Romney), intelligence (more than double the top-box score accorded to his competitors), and philosophy of government (a slight advantage over Mr. Romney and a 13-point margin over Mr. Perry). However, the born again Independents ranked Mr. Perry as the best leader, followed by Mr. Obama.
  • Looking at the views of born again Christians by their age indicates that there are substantial differences. The born again adults under 40 gave Mr. Obama top billing regarding honesty, intelligence and philosophy of government – by huge margins. The middle-aged born again adults (40 to 64 years old) were more divided. While they were most likely to rate Mr. Obama as the most honest, they gave the incumbent only a slight edge over Mr. Perry in intelligence, and had Mr. Obama and Mr. Perry tied for the top rating concerning governance philosophy and leadership ability. Among the born agains who were 65 or older, the three candidates were equally rated on honesty and intelligence, while Mr. Romney was easily deemed the one possessing the best philosophy of government, and Mr. Perry tied with Mr. Romney for having the best leadership abilities.

Further Observations
Survey respondents were asked if, “Based only on his performance as president” Mr. Obama “does or does not deserve to be re-elected as president.” Only one-third of adults said he does deserve re-election, while four out of ten said he does not. The key to the ultimate election outcome, though, is the one-fourth who said they had not made up their mind yet.

Various factions of the faith community held divergent views. For instance, seven out of ten evangelicals stated that Mr. Obama does not deserve to be re-elected. About half of the non-evangelical born again adults said he does not deserve re-election. Among notional Christians, the response was evenly split between feeling that he does and does not deserve a second term, with one-quarter undecided. A contrary view came from skeptics (atheists and agnostics): a plurality said he should be given another term, although one-quarter of the skeptics remained undecided. Among Catholics, the outcome was evenly divided whereas about half of Protestants felt Mr. Obama does not deserve to be re-elected, a bit more than one-third said he does, and one out of every six were undecided.

Among the adults who preferred Mr. Obama in each of three trial heats against a trio of Republican hopefuls (Mr. Perry, Mr. Romney, and Mrs. Bachmann), nearly one-quarter of those consistent supporters said they felt he did not deserve to be re-elected.

Research Background
The research relied upon for this report is based on a nationwide survey of a random sample of 1,010 adults, ages 18 and older, located in the 48 continental states, interviewed September 8 through 15, 2011. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.

The survey was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population operated by Knowledge Networks. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have Internet access, Knowledge Networks provides at no cost a laptop and ISP connection. People who already have computers and Internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists then receive unique log-in information for accessing surveys online, and then are sent emails throughout each month inviting them to participate in research.

“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that 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 upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

Protestant mainline denominations include American Baptist Churches in the USA; the Episcopal Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Presbyterian Church (USA); the United Church of Christ; and the United Methodist Church.

Non-mainline denominations are Protestant churches other than those included in the mainline category described above.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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