Sep 27, 2004

From the Archives

Catholic Vote May Tip the Scales for Bush

In May of this year, the presidential contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry was a toss-up. Surveys by The Barna Group in May 2004 indicated that among registered voters the race was a 43%-43% dead heat. At that time President Bush held a significant but tiny 49% to 44% lead among people likely to vote in November.

A new survey shows that among likely voters the President’s lead has grown from a five-point margin to eight points (48% versus 40%). However, one of the major changes since May is that more likely voters are currently undecided as to whom they will vote for, now comprising 10% of the likely voters, up from just 2% in May. While President Bush’s lead is statistically significant, there are enough undecided voters and “leaners” – i.e., another 8% of likely voters who have a candidate preference at this time but are not “certain” they will support that candidate in November – that the election remains up for grabs.

Major Shift Among Catholics

One of the big stories of the campaign is the seismic shift in preference among Catholic voters. Almost one out of every four likely voters (23%) is Catholic. In May, John Kerry held a small lead over President Bush, 48% to 43%. In the ensuing four months, however, a myriad of events have stimulated a reversal among Catholics. Currently, President Bush holds a commanding 53% to 36% lead over the Massachusetts Senator among Catholics who are likely to vote. That represents a 22-point shift in preference in just four months.

Equally surprising, among Protestants who are likely to vote in November, President Bush has seen his 24-point lead over the challenger cut in half at the same time that his fortunes have reversed among Catholics. Since May, Mr. Kerry has picked up a small degree of support among Protestants (from 35% up to 38%) while President Bush has lost significant ground among Protestants (dropping from 59% to 50%). In total, that’s a 12-point drop in support for the President.

It is noteworthy that President Bush, whose faith has become a high-profile issue in this campaign, is Protestant while Senator Kerry is Catholic.

Christian Vote Is Crucial to Bush

The significance of the faith factor cannot be overlooked in Campaign 2004. President Bush’s strongest support comes from evangelical Christians who are likely to vote: 90% of them plan to vote for the incumbent while only 2% plan to support Mr. Kerry. Non-evangelical born again Christians, who constitute about two-fifths of the likely voters, also strongly favor Mr. Bush (54% to 36%). Together, all born again Christians (evangelical and non-evangelical combined) are estimated to provide about half of the votes cast in November.

The preferences are entirely different among other individuals, however. Likely voters who are aligned with a faith other than Christianity prefer Mr. Kerry by a 2-to-1 margin. Likely voters who are atheist or agnostic also side with the Senator by a 2-to-1 ratio. Notional Christians – that is, individuals who consider themselves to be Christian but are not born again – also choose Mr. Kerry, 49% to 37%.

Among adults who are most likely to vote in the election – determined according to a weighted formula based on their past voting behavior, interest in this election, and certainty of casting a ballot in November – evangelicals are likely to be 10% of the electorate; non-evangelical born again Christians will be 39%; notional Christians, 38%; people of non-Christian faiths are expected to represent 8%; and atheists and agnostics are estimated to be 5% of November’s voters.

Motivations for Support Differ Radically

The dominant “issue” in this election is neither policy positions nor ideology, but George W. Bush.

When likely voters who support Mr. Bush were asked why they support him, one-third cited his leadership abilities (35%), nearly as many identified his character (29%) and just one-fifth mentioned his policies or views on issues (19%).

In contrast, John Kerry’s supporters are just as likely to be anti-Bush as they are to be pro-Kerry. The dominant reason given by Kerry supporters for their choice is that “he is not George Bush,” a reason listed by 43% of the likely voters backing Mr. Kerry. Only one-quarter said they support him because of his policies or views (26%), and small numbers cited his leadership skills (12%) or character (4%).

Evangelicals emerged as the subgroup of likely voters most driven to support President Bush because of his character (56%).

The Faith Factor Looms Large

Besides the support President Bush draws from the Christian community, the Barna survey also pointed out other significant results related to faith. Among those findings were:

  • People who had read from the Bible during the past seven days, other than at church, are both more likely to vote. They are also more likely to support President Bush (42% vs. 31% for Mr. Kerry).
  • People who had attended a church worship service during the past seven days are both more likely to vote. They are also more likely to support President Bush (47% compared to 26% of church attenders who back Mr. Kerry).
  • People who had discussed a moral issue with someone during the past seven days are both more likely to vote and more likely to support President Bush (41% vs. 34%).
  • People who had turned off a television program they were watching during the past seven days because of the morals and values it presented are both more likely to vote and more likely to support President Bush (45% vs. 29%).
  • The larger the church of the likely voter, the more likely he/she is to vote in November. In churches with less than 200 people, 41% are likely to vote, compared to 53% in churches of 200-499 adults, 61% in churches of 500-999 adults, and 63% in churches of 1000 or more adults.
  • The larger the church of the likely voter, the more likely he/she is to vote for President Bush in November. In churches with less than 200 people, 47% are likely to vote for George Bush, compared to 65% in churches of 1000 or more adults.
  • Evangelicals and non-evangelical born again Christians are substantially more likely than other faith segments to vote in November.
  • Adults who have an “active faith” – that is, they have attended a church service, read the Bible outside of church and prayed to God during the past seven days – are not only one-third more likely to vote than other Americans, but they are also likely to support President Bush by a 3-to-1 margin (65% versus 20%).

People of Faith Hold the Key

The outcome of November’s election is in the hands of Christians, according to George Barna, the survey director. “Given the higher propensity to turnout on November 2 among evangelical and born again Christians, and their margin of preference for Mr. Bush, simply maintaining his support among those segments and among Catholics, and receiving a proportional split among the undecideds will win Mr. Bush a second term in the White House.”

Asked to explain the reason for the rapid shift in support from Mr. Kerry to Mr. Bush during the summer months, Barna indicated that it was the result of a comprehensive consideration of each candidate. “That swing is attributable to an encompassing assessment by many Catholics of the leadership abilities, character, and policy stands of both men. We found that party identification and other matters had little to do with the reassessment of both candidates. Many of the Catholics now behind Mr. Bush have traditionally voted Democratic, but have chosen a different course this time around.”

Barna cautioned observers to remember that much can happen in the remaining five weeks of the campaign. “Nobody saw the huge transitions coming that occurred over the past two months. With campaign spending, candidate appearances and the debates coming up soon, and the continuing saga of forged documents, it is possible that some voters who were ‘certain’ regarding their candidate of preference could switch their allegiance.

“Just as critical,” the researcher commented, “is the rate of voter turnout on November 2. The Bush campaign must be wary that their support base does not become overconfident of victory and fail to show up at the polls – an outcome that our surveys show is possible. This is likely to be a close enough election that a significant deviation in turnout rates – for either the Bush or Kerry campaign – could alter the result of the election.”
Research Methods

The data described in this report are based on nationwide telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group from September 17 through 24, 2004 with a national random sample of 1010 adults, age 18 or older. A total of 898 registered voters were interviewed by telephone. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The maximum sampling error associated with the 898 registered voters is ±3.4 percentage points.

People in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those individuals coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. The data were subjected to minimal statistical weighting to calibrate the survey base to national demographic proportions. Households selected for inclusion in the telephone sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys 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 were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; 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; 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 has no relationship to church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

“Non-evangelical born again Christians” are those adults who are born again, based on the definition above, but do not meet all of the evangelical criteria as described.

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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