Apr 17, 2012

From the Archives

Election 2012 Priorities: How the Faith of Likely Voters Affects the Issues They Care About

Which political issues will have the greatest influence on voters’ decision of which presidential candidate to support? The answer to that question depends in part on the person’s spiritual leanings. A new nationwide survey by the Barna Group, conducted among people likely to vote in November’s election, indicates that the worldview of different religious segments of the population significantly impacts the issues they care about the most.

Abortion and Gay Marriage Are Not the Only Divisive Issues

Among all likely voters, regardless of their faith inclinations, the most influential issues are health care (said to influence their candidate selection “a lot” by 74% of likely voters), tax policy (62%), employment policies and strategies (54%), and plans regarding the nation’s dependence upon foreign oil (52%).

An analysis of reactions to the dozen issues posed to survey respondents shows that the areas least likely to impact people’s choice of a president are candidate positions on gay marriage (31%), environmental policy (30%), and abortion (29%).

Evangelicals Differ from the Pack

Among the five belief-based faith segments analyzed in the study – evangelicals, non-evangelical born again adults, notional Christians, adults of other faiths, and religious skeptics (i.e., atheists and agnostics) – evangelicals were notably distinct from other groups in regard to what might be considered a pair of their “signature issues.”

Among all likely voters, abortion ranked last on the list of influential issues. Among evangelicals, though, it ranked as the third most influential issue. Only taxes and health care were deemed more important in their candidate selection. Similarly, gay marriage was ranked tenth among likely voters, but was fifth on the list among evangelicals who are likely to cast a ballot in November.

Surprisingly, educational policies were deemed the sixth most significant issue to all likely voters but ranked just tenth among evangelicals. Past studies have indicated that evangelicals are generally much less supportive of government involvement in the schooling of their children.

Environmentalism has traditionally been of very limited interest to evangelicals. That continues to be the case in this election, as a candidate’s views on environmental matters placed last among the issues studied. Barely one out of five evangelicals (22%) said it was an issue of top concern to them, compared to 31% of all other likely voters surveyed.

Non-evangelical Born Again Distinctives

Most Americans who are born again Christians do not necessarily embrace all of the tenets of evangelicalism. According to Barna Group’s estimates, five out of every six born again Christians in the U.S. do not qualify as evangelicals (see details below). Among non-evangelical born again adults several unique perspectives on the campaign issues stood out.

First, candidate positions on taxation were much more important to the non-evangelical born again voters than to any other religious segment studied. Overall, 74% of them said taxes would be a defining issue, compared to just 57% among all other likely voters.

Second, the non-evangelical born again segment was much more focused on job creation and employment policies than any other religious segment. Altogether, 70% of the non-evangelical born again niche deemed this issue to be paramount in their candidate selection, compared to only 47% of the likely voters from all other religious groups.

Third, there was a huge divide between evangelicals and their non-evangelical born again brethren. Although both groups consist of born again individuals, there was a gap of 34 percentage points between them regarding the importance of abortion as a candidate selection issue, and a 29-point gap related to gay marriage.

However, both of those groups shared a common – and distinctive – concern about America’s reliance upon foreign oil. Nearly six out of ten likely voters from both segments rated this issue as critical, compared to less than half of the likely voters from each of the other three segments (i.e., notional Christians, people aligned with other faiths, and skeptics).

Catholics and Protestants Generally Similar
Beyond the results generated by belief, the findings were also analyzed by the Barna team in relation to denominational affiliation. (Note that a person’s denomination is not connected in the Barna definition with their status as born again or evangelical.)

In this analysis, the researchers discovered that the views of likely voters were generally similar whether they were Catholic or Protestant. Of the twelve issues tested, there were only four on which there were statistically significant differences.

Protestant likely voters were more likely than Catholic likely voters to view both immigration (44% versus 28%, respectively) and gay marriage (30% versus 22%) as important issues. However, neither of those issues was ranked in the top half of influential issues by either segment.

Catholic likely voters were more likely than Protestant likely voters to consider both health care (83% versus 72%, respectively) and education policies (54% versus 42%) as core issues. Despite the percentage gap related to health care, both segments deemed that issue to be the most influential of all on their candidate selection. The same unity was not evident regarding educational policies. While that was the fourth most important issue among Catholics, it was only ranked eighth among Protestants.

The Intra-Protestant Divide
Over the past two decades there has been a noticeable divide within the Protestant community between those who attend mainline churches and those who attend non-mainline Protestant congregations. That divide was present in five of the 12 issues explored.

In four of those five instances a higher proportion of likely voters from non-mainline churches identified the issue as greatly influential on their candidate selection. Those issues included a candidate’s positions on terrorism, wars and conflicts in the Middle East, abortion, and gay marriage.

The sole issue for which likely voters from mainline Protestant churches were more likely than those from non-mainline congregations to rate as highly influential was environmental policy.

The Relevance of Religious Engagement
Another angle on the political findings is to examine how religious engagement correlates with election priorities. Past research has shown that people who are most engaged in their faith are often more active in political and social matters as well. The current survey also points out that there are a few differences in issues of emphasis between those who are most actively involved in faith matters.

People who read the Bible, attended a church service, and prayed during the past week were substantially more likely than likely voters who are less active in pursuing their faith to rate candidate positions on abortion, gay marriage, and America’s dependence on foreign oil as significant in their candidate selection process. Likely voters who are less active spiritually were significantly more likely to list environmental policies as especially meaningful in their selection process.

The Place of “Conservative Social Issues”
Throughout the campaign season, much has been made of the significance of the candidates’ attention to and positions on abortion and gay marriage. The common thinking is that these are issues of primary concern to conservative Christians – especially evangelicals. While that appears to be a generally accurate assessment, it is important to note that among the 12 issues evaluated by respondents, evangelicals rated positions on abortion as third most influential in their candidate selection, and views on gay marriage to be fifth most important.

Interestingly, skeptics rated gay marriage as a relatively more influential issue in their selection process than did evangelicals. In fact, skeptics had a very different ranking of the issues from evangelicals, besides the expected difference related to abortion. Skeptics ranked education and environmental policies as their second and third most influential issues (trailing health care), while evangelicals ranked those two issues at the bottom of their list of priorities. Taxation policy was a mid-range issue for skeptics (ranked sixth) but was second in importance to evangelicals. Dependence on foreign oil ranked eighth among skeptics compared to fourth among evangelicals.

Independents Also Have Influence
The survey examined the views of all likely voters, regardless of their religious leanings. Among the other findings from the survey were the issue considerations of independent voters – that is, people who are not aligned with either the Democratic or Republican parties. Many political analysts believe that independent voters may represent a deciding vote in swing states.

How do independents that are likely to vote differ from the electorate at large? Not much at all, as it turns out. They tend to reflect a middle ground between Republican and Democratic voters on most issues. The exceptions are job creation, which independents rate higher than do other voters, and abortion and gay marriage policies, which independents consider much less significant than do other voters.

Likely voters associated with the two major parties both rate job creation activities, tax policies, and health care as very significant issues. However, Republicans include immigration reform, defense against terrorism, and strategies for addressing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil among the most influential issues on their candidate choice whereas Democrats include education and environmental policies, and the handling of tensions in the Middle East as their critical issues.

Choices Have Implications
The ranking of these issues by likely voters raises some intriguing possibilities regarding the substance of forthcoming campaign emphases by Democratic nominee Barack Obama and presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

  • The most important issue to likely voters – health care – is one which both candidates have been recognized as originating, but which neither candidate wants to take credit for. The high level of public interest in the issue mandates that significant attention be devoted to it, but both candidates will have to tread delicately on the issue.
  • The incumbent president is not likely to invest many resources in touting his record on people’s second and third most important issues – taxes and jobs – while neither major-party candidate seems comfortable discussing the fourth critical issue (oil prices, foreign dependency, and drilling).
  • The political pundits are claiming that to attract the Hispanic vote candidates will have to promote an attractive package of immigration reforms. Ironically, the research shows that immigration policy is a more significant issue among white voters than among Hispanic likely voters.
  • The so-called “social issues” of greatest interest to Christian evangelicals – i.e., abortion, gay marriage – are likely to be substantially downplayed, if not altogether shelved, now that the party nomination has been secured by Mr. Romney. In his efforts to broaden his base, Republican strategists fear that paying continued attention to such issues will only narrow his appeal.
  • Perhaps the biggest loser in the forthcoming contest will be environmental policies. While there is a passionate constituency related to those issues, it is a small segment of voters. A huge majority of the voting public is indifferent to such matters, essentially rendering speeches and promises related to environmentalism irrelevant to the goals of the campaigns: to solidify the support of existing supporters and to win over the hearts of the undecided electorate.

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

Survey Methodology
The study on which this report is based included online 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, based on a series of questions related to voter registration, interest in the election, perceived importance of this year’s race, past voting history, and voting intent in 2012, 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, 2012 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 panel. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have Internet access, Knowledge Networks provides a laptop and ISP connection at no cost. People who already have computers and Internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists receive unique log-in information for accessing the online survey they were recruited to participate in.

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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