May 11, 2015

From the Archives

Election 2016 Preview: The Faith Factor

With a steady stream of candidates announcing their intention to pursue their party’s presidential nomination, the American public is beginning to watch the parade and make up its mind about what they are seeking from prospective candidates. A new national survey among adults conducted by Barna Group illuminates some of the distinctions among different voter segments, including faith groups, as the 2016 race begins to take shape.

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What Voters Want in a Candidate
There are three factors that at least one in five U.S. adults will consider when they evaluate the candidates. Out in front are candidates’ stances on the key issues, which 71% of Americans say they will pay close attention to. A distant second on voters’ radar is the character of candidates, deemed critical by 41% of adults. The third most common consideration is a candidate’s political experience, listed by 22%.

At least one out in 10 adults also indicates that the party affiliation of the candidate (15%), their educational achievement (11%) or personality (10%) will be an important factor. The least-significant components in voters’ decision-making include the religious faith of the candidates (9%), their speaking ability (5%), age (2%), endorsements (2%) and physical appearance (1%).

The Barna study highlights, however, that various segments of voters—age cohorts, for example—have different priorities. Millennials (ages 18 to 30) place comparatively greater weight on factors such as education (19%) and personality (18%), and relatively less importance on party affiliation (11%). Gen-Xers (31 to 49) are very close to the national norms on each attribute Barna evaluated. Boomers (50 to 68) are more likely than average to highlight character (45%) and stances on issues (76%). Elders (69 and older) place greater emphasis than any of the other age groups on party affiliation (23%), political experience (27%) and positions on key issues (78%), and show less interest in a candidate’s education (6%) and personality (4%).

Evangelicals are distinct from the general population: They show greater interest in character (46%) and religious faith (45%, five times greater than the national average), and less interest in education, political experience and issue positions. A comparison of all born again adults (just one-sixth of whom are evangelicals) with those who are not born again reveals that the born again contingency is more interested in candidates’ religious faith (22% vs. 3%, respectively), and less interested in personality (6% vs. 12%) and speaking ability (3% vs. 7%). Overall, however, the differences between born agains and others are minimal.

The Issues Voters Care About
With more than three-quarters of Americans saying that candidates’ positions on key issues are the most important element in their selection of a candidate, Barna also identified the relative importance of eight specific issues.

By a substantial margin, the economy remains the issue of concern to the greatest number of adults, with three out of four listing it as an issue that would have “a lot” of influence on their candidate selection (76%). The only other issue named by at least half of the respondents is health care, said to have a lot of importance to two-thirds of adults (65%).

Just less than half of adults say foreign policy and positions related to immigration will have a lot of influence on which presidential candidate they will support (46%). Nearly as many say how candidates handle gun control will have a lot of influence (43%). Issues of lesser importance are the environment (37%), abortion (30%) and religious freedom (28%).

There are noteworthy differences in priorities across voter segments. For instance, evangelicals rank religious freedom at the top of their list (67%), along with the economy (69%). Abortion is not far behind (64%). Environmental issues, on the other hand, barely register for them (16%).

A comparison of born again and non-born again adults reveals that born agains are more likely to prioritize each of the issues examined with the exception of the environment (31%).

There are also some substantial differences in priorities across age groups. Millennials assign greater importance to the environment than do older adults—it is their third-highest-rated issue—and relatively lower interest in the economy (70%) and foreign policy (34%). Baby Boomers show comparatively greater interest in candidate positions on foreign policy (52%) and the lowest level of interest of any age group in abortion (26%). Elders, a segment that traditionally has the highest turnout in presidential elections, are the group most interested in the economy (86%), foreign policy (75%), health care (72%) and immigration (69%). Along with Boomers, they rank the environment at the bottom of the list (31%).

Many analysts have opined that the 2016 election is likely to be determined by the preferences of Independents. If that’s the case, it is important to note that Independents, like Democrats, currently consider positions on immigration and religious liberty to be of secondary importance in their candidate selection. They are also the segment least likely to consider abortion policy as important to their selection process.

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About the Research
The research included in this report is the result of a nationwide online study conducted April 24 to April 30, 2015. The survey included 1,025 adults 18 and older. The maximum sampling error for the study is plus or minus 3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

Generations: Millennials (or Mosaics) are the generation born between 1984 through 2002; Gen-Xers (or Busters), between 1965 and 1983; Boomers, between 1946 and 1964; and Elders, in 1945 or earlier.

Born again Christians say they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and also indicate they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent on church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

Evangelicals meet the born again criteria described above plus seven other conditions. These 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 the principles 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 “evangelical” is not dependent on church attendance, the denominational affiliation of the church attended, or self-identification. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

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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