Jan 28, 2009

From the Archives

How People of Faith Voted in the 2008 Presidential Race

Obsession or Sport?

With the nation’s longest election campaign ever finally completed, and Barack Obama emerging as a 53% to 46% victor over Sen. John McCain, a new election analysis survey by The Barna Group provides the details of how people of faith voted in 2008. News about the candidates and the election seemed ubiquitous for the past 18 months. Overall, two-thirds of all registered voters (67%) said they followed the 2008 election campaign “very closely” and another one-quarter (27%) followed it “somewhat closely.” People who do not consider themselves to be Christians followed the campaign slightly more closely than did those who claim to be Christian (71% versus 67%).

To place that interest level in context, the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which ended in a dead heat, was followed “very closely” by just 43% of registered voters.

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Evangelicals are a small proportion of the national population – just 7% of all adults. But they tend to capture the imagination and attention of the national media and political pundits. The survey data consistently show that evangelical Christians have among the highest rates of voting turnout among all voter groups and are, in fact, strikingly different from the rest of the population – even from other born again Christians who are not evangelical.

As was true in the past two presidential elections, two-thirds of all evangelicals who were registered to vote (65%) were aligned with the Republican Party. One out of five (21%) was Democrats and just one out of ten (10%) was registered independent of a party. That puts evangelicals at odds with the national voter profile, which shows a plurality of Democrats (42%), one-third Republican (34%) and two out of ten (20%) independent of a party affiliation.

Most remarkably, however, was the overwhelming support registered among evangelicals for Republican candidate John McCain. In total, 88% voted for Sen. McCain, compared to just 11% for Sen. Obama. The 88% is statistically identical to the 85% of evangelicals who backed George W. Bush in 2004. Surveys conducted by Barna throughout the campaign season showed that evangelicals were not enthusiastic about either candidate, but on Election Day evangelicals came through in a big way for the most conservative major candidate on the ballot.

Evangelicals chose their candidate on a different set of indicators than did other voters. When asked their primary reason for supporting the candidate they selected, 40% of evangelicals said it was because of the candidate’s position on moral issues. Only 9% of other voters listed that as their driving reason. Other significant reasons for evangelical voters included their candidate’s political experience (23%) and his character (15%).

Unlike other polls, Barna surveys classify a person as an evangelical based upon their answers to nine questions about their theological beliefs. Most national surveys simply ask people if they consider themselves to be evangelical, born again or a committed conservative Christian. As a result, evangelicals in Barna surveys are significantly different than the groups reported in other surveys. For the sake of comparison, the Barna survey also examined the voting behavior of people who identified themselves as evangelicals. The self-identified evangelicals represented 41% of the adult population, although just 16% of them qualified as evangelicals under the Barna Group’s theological-based classification questions. Among the self-described evangelicals, 61% voted for Sen. McCain and 38% went with Sen. Obama.

(For information about the Barna classification process, see the “About the Research” section at the end of this article.)

Born Again Christians

Evangelicals represent just one out of every six born again adults. The survey data among all born again adults found that they were much more likely to vote for Sen. McCain (57% did so) than for Sen. Obama (42%). As substantial as that margin is, the 15-point gap was considerably less than the 24-point margin accorded to George W. Bush in his 2004 campaign against Sen. John Kerry. However, it is identical to the 15-point spread they gave to Mr. Bush in 2000, and more than double the 6-point margin they gave Sen. Bob Dole in his 1996 loss to Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton.

However, born again Christians in general chose their candidate based on different criteria than did evangelicals. The major motivations among born again Christians who are not evangelical were political experience (20%), ideas about the country’s future (18%), character (17%), and economic policies (17%). To highlight the contrast in priorities, note that just 7% of evangelicals identified economic policy as a motivator, and only 8% of the non-evangelical born again Christians listed the candidate’s positions on moral issues.

Many observers were surprised to discover that born again Christians, who are about 43% of the adult population, were just as likely to be registered as Democrats as Republicans. At the time of the election, 39% of registered voters who were born again identified themselves as Democrats, 41% as Republicans, and 16% as independents.

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Voters Outside the Born Again Universe

The majority of the population is not born again Christians. Among them a much higher proportion was registered as either Democrats (44%) or independents (24%) than was true among the born again segment. Barely one-quarter of the non-born again group (27%) was Republicans.

Non-Christians provided Sen. Obama with a lopsided 62% to 36% margin of preference over Sen. McCain. That 26-point gap surpassed the 20-point margin the group provided to John Kerry in 2004 and the 15-point margin awarded to Al Gore in 2000. This shift came primarily from those non-born again adults who have moderate social and political views.

The non-born again constituency was motivated to support their candidate of choice largely because of his ideas about the future (28%), economic policies (16%) and political experience (15%).

Protestants and Catholics

Protestant voters were evenly split between being registered as Democrats and Republicans. However, they sided with Sen. McCain by a 53% to 46% split. That 7-point gap was just half the margin accorded to George W. Bush in 2004 (57% to 42%), but within range of the 4-point preference given to Mr. Bush in 2000 (51% to 47%).

Nearly half of all registered Catholics were aligned with the Democratic Party (48%), compared to only about one-quarter associated with the Republicans (28%) and one-fifth who remained independent (20%). Their voting behavior was significantly different than that of Protestants: they backed Sen. Obama by a 56% to 43% outcome. That was far different than the even split in 2004 (49% for Pres. Bush vs. 49% for Sen. Kerry) and substantially more support for the Democratic candidate than they had given to Al Gore in 2000 (49%, versus 43% to Mr. Bush).

Atheists and Agnostics

The second largest faith group in America, trailing only the Christian segment, is atheists and agnostics. These religious skeptics represent about one out of every ten adults. About four out of ten skeptics were registered as Democrats, four out of ten as independents and just two out of ten as Republicans.

Three-fourths of atheists and agnostics (76%) gave their vote to Sen. Obama, while only 23% backed Sen. McCain. That is a step up from the level of support Democrats have previously received from skeptics. In 2004, 64% of atheists and agnostics voted for Democratic challenger John Kerry.

Voters of Non-Christian Faiths

About 5% of America’s adult population associates with faiths other than Christianity (e.g., Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.). Within this group, about half (47%) were registered as Democrats, 30% were independent, and one-quarter (23%) were Republicans.

The ballots of this group were most often cast for Barack Obama (62%) rather than John McCain (36%). The support provided to the Democratic candidate is identical to the backing this group provided to John Kerry four years ago (61%).

Assumed Competence

Barna asked voters how well they thought each candidate would perform as president if he were elected. The outcome showed that Sen. Obama’s constituency was more confident in his ability as chief executive than Sen. McCain’s supporters were of their man’s potential. In addition, McCain supporters were more confident that Sen. Obama would do well in the position than Obama supporters were about Sen. McCain’s likely performance.

Among Sen. McCain’s voters, only 74% felt he would do an excellent or good job as president. In contrast, 91% of Sen. Obama’s supporters said he would perform well.

Among Sen. McCain’s backers, 17% felt Sen. Obama would do well if the Democrat were elected. Only 10% of Sen. Obama’s voters felt Sen. McCain would do well in the White House.

The Influence of Race

Among non-white voters, racial identity played a larger role in influencing their vote than did their religious beliefs and affiliations.

Assessing the voting outcomes by race and faith, the survey showed that there were no statistically significant differences between black born again voters and black non-born again voters. Similarly, there were no meaningful distinctions in candidate preference between Hispanic born agains and Hispanic non-born again voters. Overall, Sen. Obama claimed more than 90% of the African-American vote and three-quarters of the Hispanic vote. He won just 41% of the white vote.

Among white voters, faith had a significant correlation with their candidate selection. White born again voters chose Sen. McCain by a 73% to 26% outcome. Whites who were not born again chose Sen. Obama by a 56% to 39% margin. White voters were also more affected by their understanding the candidates’ moral positions and political experience than were other voters.

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Other Connections

The Barna research also found that Sen. Obama scored big points among several sizeable voter segments defined by attitudes. Among those were the following:

  1. One-fourth of all American adults (27%) claim they are “stressed out.” Among that group, Sen. Obama won a 61% to 38% victory.
  2. One out of every ten adults (9%) consider themselves to “feel lonely or isolated.” Among these individuals, Sen. Obama reaped 57% of their votes.
  3. Nearly one-quarter of the adult base (22%) said they have been affected by the economic decline in “a major way.” Those people sided with Sen. Obama by a 59% to 41% preference. Among the 14% of adults who are struggling with “serious financial debt,” three-quarters gave their vote to Sen. Obama (73% to 25%). The survey also revealed that among the 34% of adults who said they lost twenty percent or more of the value of their retirement and 401k accounts during the prior three months, Sen. Obama won the votes of 54%. However, the candidates split the votes of those who had lost twenty percent or more of the value of their stocks and bonds in the past quarter.
  4. Among voters who had a favorable view of Wicca, Sen. Obama was the favored candidate 64% to 35%.
  5. Surprisingly, three-quarters of the nation’s voters said they were “optimistic about the future.” Even more surprisingly, Sen. Obama eeked out a narrow 52% to 48% triumph among that group.

Senator McCain, on the other hand, found particular favor among other voter constituencies. Those included the following:

  1. The Republican challenger generally won over a majority of people whose beliefs reflected a conservative Christian faith. For instance, he won 57% of those who strongly believed that the Bible is totally accurate in all the principles it teaches; 61% of adults who strongly affirmed a personal responsibility to share their religious faith with others; 63% of those who believe that Satan is a living, influential force; 64% who contend that a person cannot earn their salvation, that it is a gift from God; 60% of the adults who say that Jesus Christ never sinned; and 54% of the people who have an orthodox, biblical perception of who God is.
  2. The defeated candidate carried those who said they were “deeply spiritual” (55% to 44%) and people who have an active faith (i.e., attend church, read the Bible and pray during a typical week) by a 56% – 43% margin.
  3. Adults who claimed to be “absolutely committed to Christianity” voted overwhelmingly for Sen. McCain (59% to 40%). However, those who were only “moderately committed to Christianity” were overwhelmingly persuaded to back Sen. Obama (64% to 35%). People who called themselves Christians but said they were not committed to the faith also sided heavily with Sen. Obama (79% to 21%).
  4. On the ideological extremes, Sen. McCain won over 81% of conservative voters, while Sen. Obama took 91% of the votes of liberals. (Conservatives were twice as numerous as liberals.) The election was won by Sen. Obama reaping two-thirds (65%) of the moderate vote.

Making Sense of the Findings

The election research was directed by George Barna, whose firm tracked people’s voting inclinations from the beginning of the campaign. Having served various campaigns as a pollster, including past presidential campaigns, Barna noted that this year’s race was historic but not especially competitive.

“Senator Obama built a substantial lead early and was able to maintain it throughout the race,” Barna explained. “Just when it appeared that he might win in a landslide, Senator McCain chose Governor Palin as his running mate, and that at least got the unmotivated conservative Christian vote on board. But the election clearly showed that a winning coalition requires more than just evangelical voters. George W. Bush rode to victory twice on the backs of the born again population. But Sen. McCain fared relatively poorly among the non-evangelical born again segment and was unable to compensate by replacing them with a large enough group of ideological moderates.”

Barna noted that in 2008, traditional issues did not energize the right. “There was substantial issue fatigue related to the moral issues that usually rev up the troops on the right. Although the candidates had very distinct and dissimilar views on moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage, those differences were not deal breakers for most voters. Voters are tired of fighting battles that seem interminable. And in a year when there were so many other significant crises and conflicts to consider, people’s focus shifted away from the usual throat-wringing issues.”

This may also have been a turning point for future elections. “It’s possible that the Catholic vote has now returned to the Democratic fold until another Ronald Reagan emerges to lead the Republicans. And ethnic voters flexed their muscle and came away with a win. Who would have suspected that African-Americans and Hispanics would have forged a bulletproof alliance? But they did this time around, and if Senator Obama fulfills his promise and his promises, then 2008 might have birthed a very significant new voting bloc for the future – one that is already 30% of the population and growing.”

The Republican Party, according to Barna, now has the challenge of refreshing its identity and restoring its connection with its religious constituency. “The born again body continues to lean Republican, but there are warning signs that the cozy relationship has been seriously damaged. Because they are almost half of the voting population, neither party can take the born again universe for granted – or write it off. Both parties are likely to court the born again faithful in hopes of gaining their allegiance next time out. The moderate wing of that body is especially vulnerable. Once the Party’s strategists have digested the significance of their losses among the born again contingent, the romancing will begin in earnest.”

About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1,203 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, November 1-5, 2008. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±2.9 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The survey included interviews among 1,082 registered voters and 848 adults who voted in the election. The estimated maximum margin of sampling error associated with the sample of voters is ±3.4 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.

“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.”

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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