With the start of the presidential primary season nearing, and the Republican presidential hopefuls intensifying their efforts to gain traction, a new survey by the Barna Group shows how the various faith communities of the United States are responding to those campaign efforts.
Name Recognition and Favorability
One of the most basic indicators of the “stickiness” of a campaign is the candidate’s name recognition. Although it is still very early in the election cycle, past elections have underscored the advantage of not having to spend time and money to simply get on people’s radar. That is particularly true when a leader from the opposing party is an incumbent president. For instance, President Obama has nearly universal name recognition (98%). His favorability rating – those who hold a favorable view of him compared to those who possess an unfavorable view – currently stands at 52% favorable and 47% unfavorable. His vulnerability as a candidate for re-election is indicated by the fact that only 28% have a “very favorable” impression of him, with the other 24% holding a “somewhat favorable” view. But when he seeks re-election he will have a massive war chest and the numerous perks that come from being an incumbent.
Among the possible Republican contenders, the highest levels of name recognition are held by Sarah Palin (97%), Newt Gingrich (86%), Mike Huckabee (81%), and Mitt Romney (80%). Lower levels were awarded to Ron Paul (68%) and Rick Santorum (37%).
The most positive favorability ratio was generated by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, with 44% of adults holding a favorable view and 38% a negative view of him. In comparison, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had a 40% favorable and 39% unfavorable split. More negatively skewed were the ratings for former Congressman Gingrich (32% favorable, 55% unfavorable) and former Alaska Governor and 2008 Vice Presidential candidate Palin (36% favorable, 61% unfavorable). Congressman Paul had a 31% favorable and 37% unfavorable rating.
However, given that each of these candidates must first win the Republican Party’s nomination before having the opportunity to battle the incumbent president, an evaluation of the ratings provided by registered Republicans is important to consider. Among Republicans, the numbers look quite different – and surprisingly similar across the candidates. Mr. Gingrich generated a 62%-32% positive to negative rating among members of his party. Mr. Huckabee was somewhat more favorable at 68% versus 23%. The positive to negative ratio for Mrs. Palin was 69% to 30%. Dr. Paul, the least well-known of the five major Republican contenders even among Republican voters, had a 52% to 27% ratio. Mr. Romney was nearly identical to Mr. Huckabee’s numbers, at 69% favorable and 22% unfavorable.
Favorability within Faith Communities
In the most recent presidential elections, the faith communities of America have played a major role in electing presidents and other important public figures. Breaking down the survey data by more than a dozen religious segments regularly tracked by The Barna Group, the numbers take on yet a different contour. For instance, among evangelical Christians – the 7% of the population who are most concerned about moral issues (among other considerations) and are most involved in religious activity – the favorites are clearly Mr. Huckabee (88% favorable, 11% unfavorable) and Mrs. Palin (79% favorable, 21% unfavorable). There is less warmth directed towards Mr. Gingrich (57% – 37%), Mr. Romney (56% – 29%) and Mr. Paul (51% – 26%). However, all five of those individuals are clearly favored by evangelicals more so than Mr. Obama (6% favorable, 94% unfavorable).
A larger religious segment – and a pivotal group in the last three elections and a group that is considerably less conservative than its evangelical subset – are born again Christians. Currently, the best favorability numbers from this group have been earned by Mr. Huckabee (58% favorable, 27% unfavorable) and Mr. Romney (49% – 33%). Mrs. Palin is somewhat less popular among born again adults (53% – 45%), while Mr. Gingrich struggles with this group (43% – 47%). Dr. Paul is generally viewed favorably by born agains, but is less well-known among them (39% – 31%).
Although about four out of every five Americans consider themselves to be Christian, the one out of five who do not represents more than 40 million adults. The two primary segments tracked by the Barna Group in that regard are those who are religious Skeptics (e.g., atheists and agnostics) and people who align with a faith group that is not Christian. Each of those groups constitutes about 10% of the national adult population.
Those who are from non-Christian faith communities generally like President Obama. His favorability rating among them is 61% positive, 38% negative. In contrast, not a single Republican potential candidate has a favorability rating that is more positive than negative among this faith audience: Gingrich (20% – 67%), Huckabee (30% – 59%), Palin (17% – 80%), Paul (31% – 53%), Romney (35% – 54%).
Similarly, Skeptics are generally no friend to Republicans or conservatives. The favorability statistics slant even more negative for the potential Republican candidates than was true among Americans of non-Christian faiths. While Skeptics widely approve of Mr. Obama (65% favorable, 34% unfavorable), they generally dismiss all of the Republicans: Gingrich (14% – 72%), Huckabee (19% – 59%), Palin (18% – 82%), Paul (29% – 40%), and Romney (28% – 54%).
Catholics are somewhat distinct from Protestants in their views of the candidates tested. For instance, while most Catholics have a positive view of President Obama (54% favorable, 45% unfavorable), most Protestants do not (44% – 55%). There were substantial differences of perspective shown toward the Republican representatives, as well:
Even within the Protestant world there is a significant difference of opinion about the candidates based on whether the individual attends a Protestant church affiliated with the mainline denominations or attends a Protestant congregation associated with other, more theologically conservative denominations. These differences are in many cases even more dramatic than those between Protestants and Catholics. For instance, the ratings given to President Obama are virtually mirror images of each other. Mr. Obama’s ratings are quite positive among mainline Protestants (62% favorable, 37% unfavorable) but quite negative among those attending non-mainline Protestant churches (37% favorable, 63% unfavorable).
The differences are no less stunning when it comes to the potential Republican candidates. Here are the splits for the five current frontrunners:
A closer look at those figures indicates a striking parallel between the ratings given by Catholics and mainline Protestants; in general, just a few percentage points distinguish the ratings awarded by those two groups to each of the candidates studied.
Preferred Republican Candidate
When survey respondents were asked to choose their preferred Republican nominee from a list of 11 possible candidates, only five of those candidates registered support among at least 4% of adults. The favorites were the trio of former governors (Romney 13%, Palin 13%, Huckabee 12%) followed by Cong. Paul (8%) and former Cong. Gingrich (6%). Other choices included Governor Tim Pawlenty (3%), Senator John Thune (1%), Governor Mitch Daniels (1%), Senator Jim DeMint (1%), ex-Senator Rick Santorum (1%), and Governor Haley Barbour (1%). Four percent of adults named other individuals they would support. The biggest winner of all, however, was “none of the above” which garnered 38% of the response – much of it from Democrats who have no plans of voting for any Republican candidate for the presidency.
When the figures are examined only among registered Republicans, the numbers change – but not as much as might be expected. The favorites remained Mr. Romney (20%), Mr. Huckabee (17%), Mrs. Palin (15%), and Mr. Gingrich (13%), with Mr. Paul and Gov. Pawlenty at 5% each.
Among born again Christians, a slightly different ranking emerged. For that group, Mr. Huckabee was the leader (18%), followed by Mrs. Palin (15%), and Mr. Romney (13%). Single-digit support was given to Mr. Gingrich (8%), Mr. Paul (6%), and Mr. Pawlenty (3%).
Catholics showed a different slant from Protestants. Among the Catholic populace, the favorites were Mr. Romney (15%) and Mr. Huckabee (13%). Mrs. Palin was the only other Republican in double digits (10%), trailed by Mr. Paul (7%) and Mr. Gingrich (6%). Among Protestants, though, the frontrunners were Mr. Huckabee (16%) and Mrs. Palin (16%), trailed by Mr. Romney (11%), Mr. Gingrich (8%) and Mr. Paul (7%).
Because states have divergent rules regarding voting in primary elections, a critical eye must also be kept on the preferences of those who are independent voters. Among that group, the favorites are notably different. Mr. Romney leads the pack (18%), but close behind is Dr. Paul (15%), then Mr. Huckabee (13%) and Mrs. Palin (11%). Mr. Gingrich fares poorly among the independents (5%).
The Horse Race
If the election for the presidency were held today, Mr. Obama stands a better-than-even chance of being re-elected. Of course, his chances depend on the identity of his opponent – and the survey showed that Mrs. Palin would be the easiest opponent for him to defeat, while Mr. Huckabee would be the toughest adversary.
In a match-up against Mrs. Palin, the incumbent holds a 43% to 23% lead among likely voters. In comparison, Mr. Obama generated a 33% to 23% lead among likely voters when paired against Mr. Romney, and a 35% to 26% lead over Mr. Huckabee.
The most striking feature of those contests, however, is how many people are not firmly in support of either candidate. In other words, it’s still an open race 20 months before Election Day in November 2012. But people are watching the prospective candidates and forming their opinions. A year from now, as the primary battles unfold, there will be less leeway in people’s minds about who deserves the opportunity to serve them in the White House.
About the Research
This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted in the OmniPoll℠ (part of the Barna Poll from the Barna Group). This study consisted of a random sample of 1,021 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, February 10 through February 18, 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 includes 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.
Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that 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.
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© Barna Group 2011.
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