Apr 5, 2012

From the Archives

Election 2012 Preferences: Political Polarization among U.S. Faith Segments

Evangelical Support for Obama Doubles in Past Three Years

As the 2012 election campaign approaches phase two – when the major-party candidates have been selected and begin to square off – there is an unmistakable lack of ideological and political unity within the Christian community. A new national survey by the Barna Group among likely voters indicates that there are substantial differences across a wide spectrum of Christian subgroups, with only a one segment unwavering in its commitment to defeat President Obama in November.

A Close Horse Race
The past year has generated one of the most unusual primary election campaigns in modern American history. The Republican Party frontrunner has shifted back and forth, with four candidates still in the race just four months before the party convention in Tampa. Meanwhile the incumbent president has faced no opposition from within his party and has spent his time preparing for what promises to be an intense, expensive, and acrimonious fall campaign.

The nationwide survey by Barna Group asked a sample of likely voters who they would vote for if the election were held today, evaluating the relative strength of the three leading Republican candidates against Mr. Obama.

In the first of those contests Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were of equal appeal to all voters, with Mr. Obama holding a 52% to 48% edge, which falls within the range of statistical error attributable to sampling. However, the study found that a much greater share of Mr. Romney’s support was lukewarm. Among those who would “definitely” vote for one or the other, Mr. Obama had more than double the support of Mr. Romney (38% versus 15%). In fact, more than two-thirds of those who said they would vote for the former Massachusetts Governor (33% of his 48%) indicated they were only moderately convinced they would do so.

In a match-up between Mr. Obama and Rick Santorum, the outcome was another draw (Santorum 51%, Obama 49%). Unlike the race with Mr. Romney, though, the incumbent president did not have an edge in the intensity of support when compared to the former Pennsylvania Senator. Among those who said they would “definitely” vote for one or the other candidate in this battle, the outcome was statistically tied (Obama 39%, Santorum 37%). In this case, nearly three-quarters of Mr. Santorum’s supporters said they would “definitely” vote for him (representing 37 of his 51 percentage point backing). Against Mr. Santorum, nearly 80% of those choosing Mr. Obama said they would “definitely” vote for him in this match-up.

Perhaps the weakest Republican opposition to Mr. Obama at this point in the campaign season came from Newt Gingrich, who was outgunned by the President by a 55% to 45% margin. Interestingly, Mr. Gingrich recorded twice as many likely voters who would “definitely” vote for him as was the case for Mr. Romney (31% versus 15%). However, the former Speaker of the House attracted fewer voters who were leaning toward but not definitely committed to one of the candidates.

In other words, based solely upon voters who are not likely to switch their preference between now and November, Mr. Santorum ran equal to the president; Mr. Gingrich ran about 13 points behind; and Mr. Romney trailed the incumbent by 23 points. One of the most significant outcomes of the Obama-Romney pairing is that almost half of all voters (47%) do not presently have a strong preference for either man. That’s roughly double the proportion of likely voters who lacked a strong preference when the Republican opponents were Sen. Santorum or Rep. Gingrich.

Evangelicals Dislike Obama, But Likely to Double Their Support for Him
Christian evangelicals represent about 7% of the adult population and 10% of the likely voter population. (In other words, they are much more likely to turnout on Election Day than are people from most other population groups.) Among evangelicals, Mr. Obama received little fervent support; only 3% to 5% said they would “definitely” vote for him, depending upon his Republican rival. That paled in comparison to the 53% to 58% who said they would “definitely” support a Republican opponent. That margin of intensity was unrivaled across all other religious subgroups.

Evangelicals were one of just a handful of subgroups among whom support for the Republican candidate did not waiver according to who the Republican nominee is.

In the 2008 election, a Barna Group election study found that evangelicals gave Mr. Obama just 11% of their votes, even though Republican challenger John McCain was generally not appreciated much by the group. One of the most striking changes emerging from the new study is that if evangelicals wind up supporting the eventual candidates in November in numbers consistent with their current preferences, Mr. Obama will receive double the support from the evangelical community he garnered four years ago (22%).

The Protestant-Catholic Divide Remains
Protestant and Catholic voters have distinct leanings in this year’s race. Catholics currently favor Mr. Obama, regardless of which Republican he faces in November.

Obama 56%, Romney 44%
Obama 52%, Santorum 48%
Obama 60%, Gingrich 40%

In contrast, the support of Protestant voters was less predictable, with the results depending upon which Republican was matched against the President. The one consistent outcome, however, was that none of the Republican candidates garnered less support than did Mr. Obama from Protestants. Mr. Obama’s support ranged from a low of 41% against Mr. Santorum to a high of 50% against Mr. Gingrich.

Romney 55%, Obama 45%
Santorum 59%, Obama 41%
Gingrich 50%, Obama 50%

The Protestant community, though, was divided within itself between voters aligned with mainline churches and those associated with non-mainline congregations. Among Protestants, Mr. Obama’s broadest support came from likely voters associated with the mainline bodies. In fact, he drew more support from mainline adults than did Mr. Gingrich and ran even with Mr. Romney.

Among mainline Protestants:Among non-mainline Protestants:
Romney 51%, Obama 49%Romney 59%, Obama 42%
Santorum 55%, Obama 46%Santorum 62%, Obama 38%
Obama 55%, Gingrich 45%Gingrich 53%, Obama 47%

In the non-mainline churches, however, Mr. Obama trailed each of the three candidates by significant margins. The largest gap was between Mr. Santorum and the sitting president, a difference of 24 points.

Other Faith Segments Stand Their Ground
Religious skeptics – a category comprised of atheists and agnostics – are likely to be about 11% of adults who show up to vote this November. Among skeptics, Barack Obama is a heavy favorite – almost as much as the Republican candidates are favored by evangelicals. If the election were held today, among skeptics Mr. Obama would defeat Mr. Romney 70% to 30%; Mr. Santorum by a 73%-27% clip; and Mr. Gingrich by 74% to 26%. In addition, skeptics are fervently behind Mr. Obama. More than three-quarters of the support the incumbent received from skeptics was “definite” support.

Likely voters associated with a faith other than Christianity represent about 7% of probable voters this fall. Within that segment, Mr. Obama is the indisputable favorite. He is a 2-to-1 preference against Mr. Romney; a 3-to-1 preference against Mr. Santorum; and a 7-to-3 favorite when paired with Mr. Gingrich.

Implications for November
Representatives from the Barna Group cautioned people not to read too much into the “horse race” statistics at this stage of the election process. Without the Republican candidate having been selected yet, and with three months of the major party candidates bashing each other after the upcoming party conventions, much could change before November 6. However, a few early indicators were flagged as factors to watch during the coming months.

First, the similar expected turnout and intensity levels of evangelicals and skeptics are significant. The votes of evangelicals and skeptics are likely to essentially cancel each other out in November. That elevates the relative importance of the votes cast by other religious groups whose votes are still up for grabs. Most notable among those are the non-evangelical born again Christians, who we anticipate representing slightly more than one-quarter of the likely turnout. Notional Christians and voters from non-Christian faith groups typically side with the Democratic candidate. The non-evangelical born again constituency would be the only segment left to counterbalance them in favor of the Republican candidate. Currently, Mr. Obama draws around 44% of that vote, a decline from his draw among them in 2008. If he can increase his pull with that group by just six to eight points, he is likely to win a second term.

Second, the 2008 election between Senators Obama and McCain was a close race among the non-evangelical born agains, with Mr. McCain earning a slight edge (51% to 48%). The Barna Group researchers pointed out that winning the non-evangelical born again vote is within Mr. Obama’s reach this time around – and that it could very well be the shift in allegiance that puts him over the top. If Mr. Obama wins a majority of that group’s support, he would become the first Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1996 to draw a majority of the non-evangelical born again segment – and it would likely spell the difference between victory and defeat.

Third, the current voting data also indicate that should Mitt Romney be the Republican nominee, total voter turnout is likely to be lower than in recent years due to the lackluster interest in the two candidates among the nation’s millions of mildly interested voters. The lower turnout is more likely to assist Mr. Obama in being re-elected than to help Mr. Romney defeat the incumbent.

Disclosure: Barna Group is not under contract with any of the presidential candidates, nor has it endorsed any candidates.

Survey Methodology
The survey on which this report is based included surveys with 1,005 adults who were randomly chosen from the 48 continental states. Those individuals were screened for their likelihood of voting in the 2012 General Election in November based on four factors. The filtering process produced a base of 647 likely voters. The maximum margin of sampling error for a sample of that size is estimated to be within +4.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. There are other forms of survey error that cannot be statistically estimated.

The study was conducted between March 14 and 21, 2012using 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 panel. 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 receive unique log-in information for accessing surveys online and are sent emails each month inviting them to participate in specific research studies. Potential panelists are randomly selected from the population at large to join the panel; those who have not been randomly selected but wish to participate are not able to join in the sample.

Definitions used in this report are based on various survey questions. For instance, the category described as “born again Christians” is 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” therefore represents those adults who meet the born again criteria but not the additional evangelical criteria.

“Notional” Christians are individuals who identify themselves as Christian yet do not meet the criteria for being “born again.”

“Skeptics” are individuals who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics.

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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