Aug 30, 2010

From the Archives

By Slim Margin, Voters Want Democrats to Win House and Senate; Split Evenly on Re-Electing Obama; Evangelicals Feel Differently

With the mid-term election in November, Americans have a chance to return power to the Republican Party after two years of Democratic Party rule. However, a new survey by The Barna Group (Ventura, CA) suggests that if the election were held today, only a slim majority of voters would return the Democrats to a majority position in both the House and Senate.

In addition, voters are evenly divided as to whether they would return Barack Obama to the White House.

The various segments of the Christian population maintain divergent support levels for both Congress and the president. The religious segments of the voter population most firmly supportive of the Democrats and of President Obama are the Skeptics (i.e., atheists and agnostics) and people from non-Christian faiths.

Desired Majority in Congress
For the most part, Americans seem content to have the Democrats retain control of both houses of Congress. Among registered voters, 45% wanted Democrats to rule the House while 40% desired a Republican takeover. Regarding the future of the Senate, the numbers were almost identical: 45% preferred a Democratic majority versus 41% opting for a Republican majority. Keep in mind that the survey question asked which party the respondent wanted to dominate the House and the Senate; they were not asked about the party of the candidates for the House and Senate they planned to vote for in the district in which they live.

Several consistent patterns were evident. While men are evenly divided between a preference for Democrats and Republicans, women opted for a Democratic majority. Democrats were the preference of every age group through age 65; Republicans were a decisive preference among senior citizens. Other groups that lean toward Democratic rule included college graduates, singles who have never been married, residents of the Northeast and Midwest, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. Republicans were the favorite among whites and southerners. Residents of the western states were split between favoring a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House.

Party identification provides little advantage for either party: similar proportions of each party’s voters want their party to dominate both houses of Congress, while independent voters are evenly split. Democrats get a bit of an edge, however, because the number of people aligned with the Democratic Party (43%) substantially outnumbers those associated with the Republican Party (36%).

Ideology plays a significant role in these outcomes, as well. While Republicans are greatly favored by those who describe themselves as “mostly conservative,” such voters constitute only one-third of the electorate. In contrast, those who say they are usually somewhere in-between being conservative or liberal represent half of the electorate – and they favor the Democrats by a 2-to-1 ratio. The remaining 16% claims to be “mostly liberal” and favors the Democrats by an overwhelming margin.

People of Faith are Divided
People’s faith inclinations clearly influence their preferences in this year’s election in ways that reflect their ideological leanings. For instance, evangelicals are overwhelmingly conservative in their political views and fervently desire a Republican return to power in both chambers by about a 5-to-1 margin. Non-evangelical born again Christians, who are generally moderate with slight conservative tendencies, generally favor the Republicans taking over both houses. However, they are offset by notional Christians, a group that is moderate to slightly liberal, who prefer a Democratic majority in each chamber. Further compensation comes from the Democratic preference held by both the Skeptics (3-to-1 in favor of the Democrats) and Americans of non-Christian faiths (a 5-to-2 Democratic preference). Both the Skeptics and the adherents of non-Christian faiths are typically moderate or liberal in their perspectives.

President Obama is on the Bubble
When respondents were asked if they would be more likely to vote for or not vote for President Obama to be returned to the White House based on his performance in office so far, registered voters were equally split: 45% said they would vote for him and 45% said they would not. Another 5% said it depended who was running against him and the remaining 5% did not know.

The president’s support was very clearly divided along racial, ideological, and religious lines. While whites were substantially more likely to not support his re-election (a 19 point differential between those who would and those who wouldn’t), Mr. Obama had the support of huge margins of blacks (+79 percentage points), Hispanics (+27 points) and a more nominal preference among Asians (+9 points). Ideologically, Mr. Obama is robustly supported by liberals (+58 points) and moderates (+28 points), while soundly rejected by conservatives (-62 points).

In the religious realm, Mr. Obama’s most ardent supporters are Skeptics (67% would re-elect him today based on his performance); people aligned with non-Christian faiths (53% would re-elect him, 21% would not); and Catholics (47% would, 42% would not). Catholics were the only Christian segment among whom a plurality backed the president.

Mr. Obama would not return to Washington if it were up to evangelicals (16% would support him, 77% would not); non-evangelical born again Christians (38% support, 51% do not); and Protestants (40% pro, 51% con). Individuals in the notional Christian category were evenly split. Among Protestants, people who attend mainline churches were evenly divided whereas those from non-mainline congregations were not prone to re-elect the president (39% would, 54% would not).

Overall, then, Mr. Obama would be supported by 42% of Americans who consider themselves to be Christian and by 64% of those who do not claim to be Christian.

Changes in Support Since 2008
Mr. Obama’s current standing among the various faith groups has shifted since his election in 2008. If the election were held today, his support among evangelicals would actually have risen slightly, from 11% in 2008 to 16% now. Surprisingly, that makes evangelicals the only religious subgroup from which he has experienced increased support. (Of the various faith segments that Barna tracks, however, evangelicals remain the group that awards the president the lowest level of support, despite the minor uptick.)

In contrast, Mr. Obama’s support from all born again Christians (including evangelicals) has dropped from 42% in 2008 to 34% today, reflecting the fact that the more moderate non-evangelical born again group has struggled with the president’s performance. The president’s backing has also slipped among Protestants (now 40%, down from 46%) as well as Catholics (currently 47%, down from 56%). An examination of the non-Christian faith groups shows that Mr. Obama’s allegiance has dropped significantly among both the Skeptics (from 76% down to 67%) and those of other faith groups (from 62% down to 53%).

With the 2010 campaign ready to shift into high gear after Labor Day, it appears that the ideological rift that divided the nation in 2008 has grown even more severe, despite Mr. Obama’s campaign promise to heal the wounds and knit the nation tighter. In the midst of the country’s disparate political views and expectations it is also apparent that none of the religious segments that played big for the president in 2008 are as committed to him as they were two years ago, slippage that is affecting the hopes of the Democratic Party to retain both houses of Congress for the rest of Mr. Obama’s first term. Mr. Obama still fares well among the growing non-Christian population of the nation, but that strength is waning.

About the Research
This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1,000 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, August 16-22, 2010. The interviews included 125 among people using cell phones. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The survey included interviews among 822 registered voters. The estimated maximum margin of sampling error associated with the sample of registered voters is ±3.5 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.

“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.”

“Non-evangelical born again Christians” meet the born again criteria described above, but not the evangelical criteria.

“Notional Christians” consider themselves to be Christian but do not meet the born again criteria.

“Mainline Protestant” churches include those associated with the American Baptist, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Presbyterian Church in the USA denominations.

“Skeptics” refers to people who describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic.

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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