Many Americans believe they are impervious to the effects of advertising and other external influences when it comes to forming opinions about people, products, and perspectives. Some also believe they are able to successfully resist those overtures—while others typically fall prey to such influence—and remain independent in their thinking.
A national survey of registered voters conducted by the Barna Group reveals that while an overwhelming proportion of those adults believe they will not be swayed by the likes of political commentators or candidate advertising, they are willing to identify the types of information that is likely to lead them to support a specific presidential candidate. The survey explored the impact that various influences would have on voting decisions.
Voters Say Issues Matter in Candidate Choice
The positions candidates take on issues of interest to the voter are indisputably thought by voters to be one of the most important influences on their candidate selection. The challenges with that notion, however, are two-fold. First, there is no single issue, or even just two or three issues, of such broad importance that an appealing narrative on that handful of issues would effectively galvanize the electorate. Second, the positions of various candidates often seem indistinguishable—especially in a large field of candidates such as that featured in this year’s Republican primary race. It is common, as has happened throughout this year’s GOP campaign, to see multiple candidates stake out positions that are virtually identical to the stands taken by their competitors.
Be that as it may, Barna’s study shows that 30% of voters say that issue positions are the single, most important reason for choosing a candidate. Issue positions were named as the most important influence nearly three times as often as the next highest-rated influences, which were leadership qualities (mentioned by 11%) and a candidate’s experience and track record (11%). Other important reasons for choosing their candidate included how honest and trustworthy the candidate seems to be (9%), sensing that the candidate cares about people like the voter (8%), and the political ideology of the candidate (7%). Not far behind were attributes like the character of the public figure (6%) and their intelligence (5%).
Faith Affected Selection Criteria
The faith commitment of evangelicals was clearly reflected in the candidate selection criteria they identified. One-quarter (26%) named character as a key selection criterion, compared to just 5% of the general electorate. Evangelicals were equally as likely to list character as to select issue positions, making them one of only two faith segments for which issue positions were not at least ten percentage points higher than any other motivation for their candidate selection. They were four times more likely than other voters to list candidate stands on morals as a crucial determinant (19%). And a candidate’s experience and track record was deemed much less significant to evangelicals (2%) than the rest of the voting public (12%).
In contrast, non-evangelical born again Christians and notional Christians were the most keenly focused on past experience and track record. Voters who are associated with a non-Christian faith were most moved by a candidate’s political ideology and by their morals. The top attributes sought by skeptics were the political ideology of the candidate and the degree to which the candidate cared about people like the skeptic. Reflecting their unique worldview and lifestyles, spiritual skeptics were twice as likely as others to value candidate intellect and they were less than half as likely as other voters to mention a candidate’s honesty and trustworthiness as deciding factors.
Catholic and Protestant voters had some substantially divergent views on what motivates their support of a candidate. Both segments agreed that candidate experience and track record was important. But Catholic voters were twice as likely to cite leadership ability as a determining characteristic. Protestant voters were four times as likely to mention stands on moral issues; twice as likely to list character; and significantly more likely to identify stands on issues as a motivation.
Issues that Make a Difference
The survey also explored the potential impact on candidate selection of ten specific issues. Once again, not only was there a clear hierarchy of importance assigned to those issues, but people’s religious faith was firmly correlated with many of those choices.
Only two issues were identified by half or more of the voters as those having “a lot of influence” on their candidate choice. The most impactful issue of all is national defense, named by 55% as having the highest degree of influence on their candidate preference. Close behind were positions related to immigration and border control, said to have paramount influence by half of the voters (50%). While not reaching the 50-percent mark in voters’ opinions, gun policies (49%) and plans for handling the federal budget deficit (48%) were statistically similar to the level of influence ascribed to immigration.
About four out of ten voters (42%) rated poverty as an issue that would have a lot of influence on their candidate preference. The next level of responses encompassed five matters, each named by about one-third of the public as having a lot of influence on their vote: social justice, environmental care, religious liberty, marriage, and abortion.
Faith Segments Emphasize Different Issues
Once again, people’s faith impacted the issues that will substantially effect their candidate selection reflections. Evangelicals placed religious liberty at the top of their list: 85 percent said it would have “a lot” of influence. (Among all voters, that issue ranked eighth out of the 10 studied.) Evangelicals also rated several other issues much higher than did every other faith segment: marriage (71%, more than twice the national average); abortion (69%, more than double the national norm); immigration (65%); and the federal deficit (57%). They also stood out for how few would assign “a lot” of influence to candidate views on environmental care (just 14%, less than half the proportion of other voters to do so).
Interestingly, less than half of the non-evangelical born again voters (45%) said religious liberty would have a lot of influence on their candidate preference, making them barely half as likely as evangelicals to rate this issue so highly. The gap between the two segments was even larger related to abortion: only 29% said that issue would have a lot of influence on who they vote for, which was 40 percentage points lower than the proportion of evangelicals. There was a 32-point gap related to the influence of positions on marriage policy, and a 24-point gap concerning environmental care.
The most curious response pattern occurred among voters associated with non-Christian faith groups. The gap between the highest and lowest influence scores on the 10 issues explored was a mere seven percentage points, from a high of 38 percent (related to environmental care) to a low of 31 percent (concerning religious liberty).
Skeptics, as would be expected, said the issue that would have the least influence on their vote was religious liberty. The issues with the greatest number of people who assigned a lot of influence to these issues were gun policies (48%) and environmental care (47%).
The overall importance of issues on candidate selection can be assessed in terms of the number of issues which a majority of the segment said would have “a lot of influence” in their candidate selection. Among evangelicals, six of the issues were listed as having “a lot” of influence. Four issues made the list among the non-evangelical born again voters; two issues among the notional Christians; and none of the issues reached a majority level among the other faith and skeptic segments. Similarly, five issues made the cut among practicing Christians compared to only two among the non-practicing Christians.
Influence Beyond the Issues
Policy promises are certainly not the only factors that influence people’s vote. The survey incorporated another series of indicators, and found surprisingly low levels of anticipated impact on people’s candidate choice.
Of seven additional influences tested—religious faith, family and friends, candidate debates, the opinions expressed by Christian leaders and by political commentators, endorsements by politicians, and candidate advertising—the most impactful was thought to be the voter’s religious faith. One-quarter of Americans said their faith would have “a lot” of sway on their candidate selection, with nearly as many voters (22%) citing the televised debates among the candidates as having such an impact. Far fewer people assigned high influence to the opinions of family and friends (12%); the opinions or endorsements of national Christian leaders (11%); endorsements by other trusted public figures (10%); advertising by the candidates (10%); and the opinions of political commentators (8%).
A closer look at these potential influences shows that evangelicals were a clear outlier among religious people. Ninety percent of evangelicals said their religious faith would have a lot of influence on their candidate selection. They were the sole segment for which a majority listed faith as a major influence. The 90 percent figure more than doubled the proportion of non-evangelical born again voters who concurred (43%), represented five times the level among people associated with non-Christian faiths (18%), eight times that of notional Christians (11%), and 18 times the percentage among skeptics (5%). The next most powerful influence was ascribed to the opinions of national Christian leaders: 38% of evangelicals said those endorsements would have a lot of influence on their thinking.
The most impactful of these seven entities among Catholics (27%), notional Christians (20%) and skeptics (18%) was reported to be the content of the televised debates.
What The Research Means
George Barna, special analyst for the 2016 election polling, noted that the two faith segments at opposite ends of the continuum most clearly reflected their faith views in their political influences. “Evangelicals consistently cited candidate-selection influences that reflected the substance of their faith. They were most likely to list factors such as character, morals, religious liberty, abortion, and even the opinions of national Christian leaders. But the skeptics were also true to their point of view. They were the group least likely to rely upon positions on matters like religious freedom, least concerned about character, and more interested in worldview and ideology.”
The California-based researcher also pointed out that while the non-evangelical born again segment has made an important spiritual commitment that distinguishes them from notional Christians, the elements that are most likely to influence the political choices of both groups are strikingly similar. “The commitment to Christ among born again voters who are not evangelical does not seem to have much influence on their political perspectives. On political matters they seem to have more in common with notional Christians and with people associated with non-Christian faiths than they do with evangelicals. That helps to explain why the national media polls that lump together self-reported evangelical and self-reported born-again voters confuse analysts when they strive to figure out why so-called ‘evangelicals’ support Donald Trump.”
About the Research
This research was conducted by the Barna Group using an online survey with a nationally representative sample of adults 18 and older. A total of 869 registered voters participated in the survey, which was conducted from January 28 through February 4, 2016. The estimated maximum sampling error for the aggregate sample is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level. The sampling error estimate is higher for subgroups within the total sample.
The study divided respondents into five unique faith segments based on their religious beliefs.
Evangelicals met nine specific theological criteria. They said they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today,” that their faith is very important in their life today; believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior; strongly believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; firmly believe that Satan exists; strongly believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; strong agree that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; strong assert that the Bible is accurate in all the principles it teaches; and describe 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 on self-identification, church attendance, or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”
Non-evangelical born again Christians say they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. However, they do not accept all of the other seven theological beliefs that categorize someone as an evangelical.
Notional Christians are people who consider themselves to be Christian but they have not made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” or believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior.
People aligned with non-Christian faith groups included anyone associated with a religious community or perspective besides Christianity, such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.
Skeptics are individuals who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, indicate that they do not believe in the existence of God, or have no faith-related ties or interests.
Practicing Christians are self-identified Christians who have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life.
About the Barna Group
The Barna Group is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.