Feb 10, 2003

From the Archives

Evangelicals Are Ready to Re-Elect Bush, But Other Americans Are Not So Sure

George W. Bush is a popular president but that public favor may not be enough to return him to the White House for a second term according to the results from a new national survey by the Barna Research Group. The survey shows that if the election were held today the incumbent president would have a difficult time retaining his position.

The survey also points out that the president would have no difficulty keeping his job if the only people voting were evangelicals. That group is twice as likely as the rest of the nation to say they would “definitely” vote for him in a re-election campaign, no matter who his opponent might be.

Stellar Job Performance

Nearly six out of ten adults (57%) say the president is doing an “excellent job of leading the country,” while one-third (36%) disagree with that perspective. Surprisingly few people have no opinion on this matter (7%), indicating that Americans are quite engaged in monitoring the president’s performance in office.

Three particular population groups emerged as those most likely to affirm the excellence of President Bush’s leadership. Four out of five people from each segment agreed that Mr. Bush is doing an excellent job: evangelicals (82%), Republicans (84%) and conservatives (79%).

Other groups who were more likely than the norm to give the president positive evaluations included people who are actively involved in their faith (66% of whom said he is doing an excellent job), whites (64%), married people (64%), residents of the western (64%) and southern states (62%), and those who are upscale (i.e., 59% of those who have a college degree and a household income exceeding $60,000).

Four segments stood out as having the least regard for the job performance of the president. Those groups included African-Americans (52% of whom disagreed that he is doing an excellent job), atheists and agnostics (43%), liberals (43%), and Democrats (43%).

Americans Like the President

Slightly less than half of all adults said they have an “extremely positive” or “mostly positive” impression of Mr. Bush. That was roughly three times the percentage of adults who had a “mostly negative” or “extremely negative” impression of him. Other people harbored mixed feelings – 20% felt “slightly positive” toward the president, 10% felt “slightly negative” toward him – or did not know what they felt about Mr. Bush (6%).

Again, the three people groups with the most positive impressions of the president were Republicans (78% were extremely or mostly positive), evangelicals (77%) and conservatives (70%). Other groups more likely than average to hold positive feelings about the president included upscale individuals (60%), whites (56%), married adults (54%), Protestants (52%), Baby Boomers (51%), and residents of the South (51%).

There were four specific segments of adults who were twice as likely as the national average to possess views of President Bush that were “extremely negative.” Those groups were liberals (26% held such an opinion), African-Americans (25%), atheists and agnostics (21%), and Democrats (20%).

A Challenging Election

At least six high-profile Democrats have already thrown themselves into contention for the Democratic nomination to run against Mr. Bush in 2004. While people’s knowledge of those contenders is generally slim-to-none, and most voters hold Mr. Bush in high regard, re-election will be no easy prospect for the sitting president. Asked how likely they would be to vote for him if the election were held today, just one out of every four registered voters (27%) said they would “definitely” vote for Mr. Bush, with another 20% saying they would “probably” do so. Just as many voters said they would “definitely not” vote for him as said they definitely would (25%), with one in seven saying they would “probably not” support him (14%).

The president draws his firmest support from the same three segments who give him the highest marks related to job performance and personal impression: evangelicals (56% of whom were likely to definitely vote for him), Republicans (55%) and conservatives (48%). Other pro-Bush groups included those from households making over $60,000 (32% of whom said they would definitely vote for him) and whites (30%). Married adults were nearly twice as likely as single adults to give the president their vote (30% versus 16%, respectively).

Several groups were firmly aligned in opposition to the incumbent. Liberals (45% of whom said they would definitely not vote for him), African-Americans (44%) and Democrats (43%) topped the list of those not supportive. Others lined up against Mr. Bush in above-average numbers include atheists and agnostics (34%), downscale individuals (i.e., no college education and a household income of less than $30,000 – 31% saying they would “definitely not” support Mr. Bush), single adults (30%) and residents of the Northeast (30%).

Movement in the Past Year

Compared to one year ago, people’s perceptions of President Bush have changed somewhat, presumably due to the fading memory of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the eruption of more recent challenges such as the pending war with Iraq, the sluggish economy and the emergence of North Korea as a military threat.

One year ago, four out of five adults (79%) said the president was providing excellent leadership, compared to the three out of five (57%) who say so today. People’s impression of the president has declined less substantially, dipping about nine percentage points (from 75% favorable to the current 66% favorability).

The president’s re-election prospects have dipped accordingly. A year ago one-third (32%) said they would definitely vote for the former Texas Governor, compared to one-quarter today (27%). Combining those who said they would either “definitely” or “probably” vote for him also produces a decline from 57% to 47%. Comparing those who would definitely vote for him a year ago with those who would do so today highlights softening support among several groups in particular. Those groups include people 57 or older (dropping from 42% who would definitely vote for him to just 27%); non-evangelical born again Christians (dipping from 41% to 24%); and independent voters (down from 31% to 17%).

Although there are no segments that have increased their level of support for Mr. Bush, several have maintained the same level of support: evangelicals (56%); voters from the western states (29%); Hispanics (23%), atheists and agnostics (19%), and Democrats (14%).

Four More in ’04?

George Barna, who directed the research, answered questions regarding the President’s ability to win another term by simply firming up his support in conservative, Republican and evangelical circles – his strongholds. “None of those segments is large enough to put the president over the top two years from now, especially given the overlap among those three segments,” the researcher explained. “For instance, only 6% of the public is evangelical. Only three out of ten adults consider themselves to be Republican, and three out of ten say they are mostly conservative on social and political issues. After accounting for the overlap across these three groups, even winning 80% of the vote from these groups would not be sufficient to place Mr. Bush over the top. Clearly, the president needs to expand the breadth of his base of committed supporters in order to return to the White House.”

Barna, a former campaign manager and for years a political pollster, was asked what type of coalition might be the easiest for the president’s team to piece together. “Political campaigns live or die on the basis of effective positioning and image. The president’s future depends on his ability to find the combination of issues and postures that win over key groups without igniting fiercer opposition among his detractors or losing lukewarm supporters. Taking a high-profile stance on abortion rights, for instance, might increase his waning support among Catholics, but would likely raise enough resistance from independent voters to offset the potential gains. Instead, because his presidency is largely disconnected from Baby Busters, he might be able to bond with them on issues such as facilitating future opportunities for leadership, support for families, and cracking down on companies that hinder health (such as tobacco producers). Similar issue clusters that might win over other swing groups need to be identified and the message clarified for the president to gain additional support.”

Asked to assess the president’s chances of being returned for a second term, the California-based author noted that such predictions are useless at this stage of the campaign season. “If history has taught us anything during the last seven elections, it is that voters are uninvolved in the process until the final couple of months,” he cautioned. “At this stage of the race, the campaign activity is merely second-rate entertainment, a kind of political background noise that titillates only political aficionados. It won’t be until the final three weeks of the campaign that millions of voters will wake up and make visceral choices regarding whom to support. Remember that unknown commodities such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton emerged from total obscurity to win the presidency, and George Bush, Sr. was wildly popular after the Gulf War but lost in his re-election bid. With an electorate as disengaged as ours, handicapping the races at this stage is foolish. The horse race statistics simply give us one further indication of how people are feeling about the current Chief Executive.”

Research Methodology

The data in this report are based on a nationwide telephone survey conducted by the Barna Research Group from its interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. The OmniPollSM survey involved interviews among 1010 adults during the last week of January and first week of February. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. 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. Multiple callbacks were used 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.”

“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.

“Baby Boomers” were the group born between 1946 and 1964. “Baby Busters” followed, covering the years 1965 through 1983. The youngest generation is the “Mosaics,” who were born from 1984 through 2002.

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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