Jun 9, 2008

From the Archives

November Election Is Obama’s to Lose

Unless Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama commits political suicide between now and election day, the Senator from Illinois is in a very comfortable position to win the November race against Republican challenger John McCain. A new survey from The Barna Group, exploring the voting preferences of registered voters who are likely to vote in the upcoming election, found that not even the existing strong support of the evangelical community will be enough to lift the Republican hopeful over the top.

Six Factors Favor Obama

The Barna study identified six indicators of the strength of the Obama candidacy which combine to give the presumptive Democratic nominee a high probability of victory. The indicators are:

1. Among likely voters, Sen. Obama holds a 50% to 35% lead over Sen. McCain.

2. There are relatively few undecided voters – just 15% of the registered voters who are likely to vote have not yet chosen a candidate to support. For Sen. McCain to be competitive, he would have to sweep all of those votes – and then some. That possibility is made particularly remote by the finding that a majority of the undecided likely voters are leaning toward the Democrat.

3. Likely voters who intend to cast their ballot for Sen. Obama are more solidly backing their candidate than is the case among those who support Sen. McCain. Whereas 73% of the Obama voters are “absolutely certain” that they will vote for him, just 59% of the McCain voters are equally committed.

4. Likely voters siding with Sen. Obama are considerably more confident that he will win the election than is the case among those who say they will vote for Sen. McCain. A majority of the Obama voters (53%) believe their candidate will win, compared to less than one-third (31%) of those who say they will vote for Sen. McCain. This matters because past election research has indicated that such confidence affects people’s likelihood of turning out to vote.

5. Registered Democrats who are likely to vote are much more excited about the upcoming election than are registered Republicans who are likely to vote, by a 48% to 30% margin.

6. There is a large proportion of young adults who are newly registered to vote but have never cast a ballot who are likely to vote in November. Those people are heavily Democratic and lean decisively toward Sen. Obama.

No Factors Favor McCain

The national survey showed that there are no specific reasons to believe that Sen. McCain is likely to win the election. As expected, he has drawn massive support from groups such as evangelicals (78% of likely voters who are evangelical would vote for him if the election were held today, compared to only 9% for Sen. Obama) and Republicans (75% of registered Republicans who are likely to vote back McCain, while 10% back Obama). And even though Sen. McCain holds a considerable lead among the likely voters who describe themselves as “mostly conservative” (65% would vote for McCain, while 23% would opt for Obama), that is a substantial decline in conservative support compared to the outcomes of the past two presidential elections.

A huge degree of support for the Republican presidential candidate has been lost since the 2004 election. Those declines are most prolific among several critical constituencies. For instance, there has been a swing of 20 percentage points or more away from the Republican candidate to the Democratic candidate among downscale adults (54 points), blacks (32 points), people who are active in the Christian faith (23 points), men (22 points), residents of the South (22 points), Protestants (22 points), Catholics (21 points), non-evangelical born again Christians (21 points), and conservatives (20 points).

In contrast, there has been little ground gained among other voter segments since 2004 to compensate for those losses. No single segment has swung by even as little as 10 points toward the Republican column since 2004.

Only Hope for McCain

There are several factors which could facilitate a victory by Senator McCain in November. Those include the following possibilities.


  1. Senator Obama commits a major blunder or there are significant negative revelations about the Democratic candidate.
  2. A massive number of people who are either not currently registered to vote, or registered voters who are not currently likely to vote in November, actually turn out to vote and select Sen. McCain by a substantial margin.
  3. Sen. Obama’s supporters do not turn out for the election, either because of election fatigue or the assumption that because he is likely to win he does not need their vote.
  4. Some analysts have suggested that there may yet be some racial backlash against Sen. Obama because he is black. If that were to emerge, it could cut into the lead of the Democrat.
  5. The Vice Presidential candidates chosen by the presidential nominees could sway some voters to flip from the current favorite to Sen. McCain.
  6. Independent voters, who are currently divided evenly between the two major candidates, could swing toward the Republican candidate.
  7. If a major national security issue were to erupt, and thereby elevate defense and security issues to the forefront, Sen. McCain could gain ground based on his standing in the eyes of registered voters as the stronger and more experienced candidate on such matters.
  8. Sen. McCain could pick up some votes if the lingering ill-will between the Clinton and Obama camps erupts into a more serious split between the supporters of those two Democratic candidates.

In order for Sen. McCain to win in November, it seems that several of these factors would have to occur in order to change a sufficient number of votes to the Republican candidate.

Role of the Faith Community

The Barna research indicates that the Christian community in the U.S. has largely shifted its loyalty to the Democratic nominee in this year’s race. In the 2004 election, 81% of evangelicals voted for the Republican incumbent George W. Bush. Currently, 78% of the likely voters who are evangelical expect to vote for Sen. McCain. Evangelicals represent 8% of the adult population and just 9% of all likely voters.

But the big news in the faith realm is the sizeable defection from Republican circles of the much larger non-evangelical born again and the notional Christian segments. The non-evangelical born again adults constitute 37% of the likely voters in November, and the notional Christians are expected to be 39% of the likely voters. Among the non-evangelical born again adults, 52% supported President Bush in 2004; yet, only 38% are currently supporting Sen. McCain, while 48% are siding with Sen. Obama. Although notional Christians voted for John Kerry in 2004 by an 11-point margin, that gap has more than doubled to 26 points in this year’s election. Protestants and Catholics have moved toward the Democratic challenger in equal proportions since 2004.

Comments on the Race

The next four months would have to bring about a dramatic realignment of voters for the Republicans to retain the White House, according to George Barna, who conducted the survey.

“Presidential campaigns have a history of surprises emerging to alter the expected outcome. However, with the race starting so early this time around, and such extensive media coverage being devoted to the race, people have invested themselves in the process sooner than normal, and many minds are already made up.” Barna also stated that, “Senator McCain has a difficult, uphill battle ahead of him. Running a traditional campaign is not likely to either motivate the unmotivated voters or dislodge the voters already committed to Senator Obama. He will need to bust outside the normal flow of political activity and thought to pull out a victory. Senator Obama needs to remain focused, consistent and steady in order to prevail in November.”

Barna, who has conducted polls for a variety of political campaigns, including Presidential and Congressional candidates, has been surprised by the movement within the religious community. “One of the biggest stories is the massive shift of the non-evangelical born again voters away from the Republican camp. Evangelicals have remained consistently conservative and solidly Republican in their stands on issues and candidates, but the rest of the Christian population has distanced itself from both conservative views and Republican candidates. At the same time, we are also seeing a transition to different issues of importance. Some of this is attributable to the influx of younger adults into the faith community, but it also has to do with the sea change in communications and technology. The old rule book about how to wage a successful campaign is of limited value these days.”

About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1003 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, in May 2008. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 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.

To focus on the leanings of “likely voters,” 561 such adults were interviewed. A likely voter was defined as one who is registered to vote; voted in the 2004 presidential election; could recall the candidate they voted for that year; and claims they will “definitely” vote in the November election. Among people of voting age who were too young to vote in the 2004 election, the criteria were altered to reflect their ineligible status four years ago. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±4.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

“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.”

Non-evangelical born again Christians meet the born again criteria described above, but not the evangelical criteria. Notional Christians are thjose who consider themselves to be Christian but do not meet the not born again criteria.

People who have an “active Christian faith” are those who have attended a church service, prayed to God, and read the Bible (excluding while they were attending a church event) during the week prior to the survey interview.

“Downscale” individuals are those whose annual household income is less than $20,000 and who have not attended college. “Upscale” people are those whose annual household income is $75,000 or more and they have graduated from a four-year college.

The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website

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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