One of the most reliable constituencies of the Republican Party in recent years has been born again Christians. A new national survey of likely voters conducted by The Barna Group, however, shows that the Republicans have lost the allegiance of many born again voters. The November election is truly up for grabs – and if the election were held today, most born again voters would select the Democratic Party nominee for president, whoever that might be.
Born Again Voting Pattern
In 1992, born again voters sided with Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush over Democratic challenger Bill Clinton by a 39% to 35% margin. In the 1996 election, born again voters again sided with the Republican candidate (Bob Dole) rather than the incumbent Democratic President Bill Clinton by a 49% to 43% margin. In the 2000 election, the born again constituency gave Republican nominee George W. Bush a resounding 57% to 42% margin over Democratic challenger Al Gore. In 2004, the born again segment again sided with George W. Bush, giving him a lopsided 62% to 38% preference over Democratic hopeful John Kerry.
In the past couple of elections, the born again vote represented about half of the total number of votes cast in the U.S. Given the razor thin margin of victory achieved by President Bush in 2000, and the close tally in 2004, the born again vote was vital in both of the Bush victories.
Born Again Voters in the 2008 Election
Compared to recent presidential elections, the current leanings of the born again constituency have reversed. The new Barna study shows that if the election were to be held today, 40% of all born again adults who are likely to vote in November would choose the Democratic candidate and just 29% would choose the Republican candidate. The remaining 28% are currently not sure whom they would choose, preferring to make their selection on the basis of the candidate than strictly on the basis of his or her party affiliation.
George Barna, whose firm conducted the national survey, indicated that Republicans have an uphill climb with the born again voters. “Given the large percentage of undecided voters, it is possible that the Republican candidate might eventually win a majority of the born again vote,” he explained. “However, it will not be easy to win them over. Several factors are operating against the Republican’s prospects in this election, related to both social issues and the personal integrity of several of the candidates.”
If the election were held today, and all of the remaining candidates from both parties were on the ballot, the frontrunners among born again voters would be Hillary Clinton (favored by 20% of born again likely voters), Barack Obama (18%) and Mike Huckabee (12%). No other candidate reached double figures. Thirty percent of the born again likely voters said they were still undecided as to who they would choose.
Evangelicals Remain Strongly Conservative Republican
A subset of the born again population – evangelicals – has remained firmly committed to conservative ideals and, to a lesser extent, to the Republican Party. Across the nation, 43% of registered voters are aligned with the Democratic Party and 24% are registered as Republicans. Among evangelicals, though, 56% are registered Republicans and just 22% are Democrats.
Ideological leanings reflect a similar disparity. Among all voters, half say they are somewhere in the middle of the ideological spectrum on most issues, with 29% describing themselves as mostly conservative and just 14% claiming to be mostly liberal. Yet, among evangelicals, three out of every four (72%) describe themselves as mostly conservative and a mere 2% say they are mostly liberal. Just one out of four evangelicals (24%) says they are in the ideological middle ground.
If the election were held today, only 45% of evangelicals say they would support the Republican nominee for president, and 11% would support the Democratic representative. Most significant is that a whopping 40% of evangelicals are undecided. This is extraordinary, given that 62% of evangelicals voted for the Republican candidate in 1992, 67% did so in 1996, along with 67% in 2000 and 85% in 2004.
“Evangelicals are clearly sending a message to Republican leaders this time around,” commented Barna, a former campaign manager whose firm has conducted surveys for candidates in two presidential elections. “There is tremendous frustration among evangelical voters, in particular. Overall, 90% of them say they are interested in the presidential election, making them among the voter segments most interested in the race. Further, 98% of them say they are concerned about the moral condition of the country and 82% say they uncomfortable with the way things are going in the world. Yet, given the stands of some of the leading Republican contenders, evangelicals are registering their discomfort with the choices they have at hand.”
The Mormon Question
The Barna study also explored the opinions of people related to the Mormon faith of Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
Overall, the study revealed that more than one-quarter of the population (27%) contends that Mormons are not Christians. That sentiment was especially common among evangelical Christians (57%). Other groups that had above-average numbers who reject Mormons as Christians included all born again Christians (37%), political conservatives (32%), and people under the age of 40 (36%).
“While Mr. Romney has tried hard to diffuse concerns about his Mormon faith,” noted Barna, “the reality is that large segments of the population do not accept the notion that Mormons are Christian. While that would not be a central factor in most people’s voting decision, it would be a sufficiently significant factor in the minds of millions of voters to affect the race if he proves to be the Republican nominee.”
The media have made a big deal over the so-called “values voters” in this election. Toward that end, The Barna Group study evaluated a group of likely voters who described themselves as being “deeply spiritual” and “concerned about the moral condition of the United States.” That segment represents 35% of the electorate.
This group proved to be somewhat more conservative in its political views (42% are “mostly conservative”) and slightly more inclined than the national population to be registered as Republican (35% Republican, 44% Democrat). However, these “values voters” are only slightly more inclined to select a Republican candidate (27%) than is true nationally (24%). In fact, the “values voters” are currently less inclined to select the Republican nominee than are born again (29%) or evangelical voters (45%).
Thoughts on the Election Season
The November election will be a study in contrasts, according to Barna. “As in recent elections, a key to victory in November will be the faith vote. Unlike the past couple of presidential races, though, the born again and evangelical vote is up for grabs. In recent elections, the faith vote sided with the Republican candidate early in the race, allowing those candidates to focus on winning over swing votes. In this year’s contest, however, the faith vote cannot be taken for granted. Much can change between now and November, but Republican candidates have a tough road ahead of them this year.”
Barna also indicated that the nature of voters driven by their faith has shifted in the past decade. “Today we have a greater proportion of faith-driven voters who are concerned about issues that are often thought of as ‘liberal’ social policy concerns, such as poverty and health care. Abortion and family protection remain significant issues to the faith constituency, but they are not the only issues that matter to the group – or even the driving issues. Relying upon traditional stereotypes of born again or evangelical voters will not serve candidates well this year.”
About the Research
This report is based upon nationwide telephone surveys conducted by The Barna Group with random samples of adults, age 18 and older. These surveys were conducted in January 2008 among 1006 adults randomly selected from across the continental United States. The survey included 649 registered voters who were deemed to be likely to vote in this year’s general election on the basis of their past voting behavior and their inclinations to vote this year. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the sub-sample of likely voters is ±4.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.
“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.”
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna 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 new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website www.barna.org.
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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