Oct 22, 2009

From the Archives

Obama Poised to Win and Make Significant Inroads with Christian Voters

Unless a dramatic shake-up of the electorate occurs in the next two weeks, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is poised to win the November 4th election by a comfortable margin. 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 Sen. Obama has a 13-point lead against Republican John McCain (50% to 37%). One of the surprising insights of the research is the significant inroads Sen. Obama has made among the Christian community, particularly compared to 2004. In fact, among born again voters there is a statistical dead-heat: 45% plan to vote for Sen. McCain, while 43% expect to cast a ballot for Sen. Obama. Even if Sen. McCain were to sweep the 10% who are undecided born again voters, he would fail to reach the 62% who rallied for President Bush in 2004.

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Breaking Down the Christian Vote

The born again segment is large and diverse. This November, born again voters figure to represent nearly one out of every two votes (48%), but they are far from a monolithic voting bloc. Barna Group surveys differentiate between two segments within the born again population – evangelicals and non-evangelical born again Christians. [Note: Most media polls use a simplistic approach to define evangelical, asking survey respondents if they consider themselves to be evangelical. Barna Group studies, on the other hand, ask a series of nine questions about a person’s religious beliefs in order to determine if they are an evangelical.]

The larger of the two groups, non-evangelical voters, represent 39% of likely voters. Currently, a plurality support Sen. Obama over Sen. McCain (48% to 41%). Nine percent of these voters are undecided, theoretically giving either candidate a chance to win this segment of voters. However, if voter preference sustains through Election Day, John McCain will not duplicate the significant margin enjoyed by George Bush over John Kerry four years ago among non-evangelical born again Christians (56% to 44%).

Evangelicals Waver

An equally surprising insight from the research is the fact that Obama has cut into the advantage Republicans enjoyed among the smaller, more conservative segment of evangelicals. Although evangelicals will represent about 9% of likely voters this November, they have been a critical base of solidly Republican voting for several decades. In 2004, for instance, 85% of these voters selected George Bush.

However, with two weeks to go before the election just 63% said they are supporting the Arizona Senator, compared with 23% who opted for the candidate from Illinois. With 12% of the evangelical vote undecided, there is still a chance for McCain to expand his advantage with this group. Nevertheless, support for Obama has steadily increased over the summer months, moving from 9% of evangelicals who supported Obama in May to 17% in late July to the current level of 23%.

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Other Factors

If the presidential election were held only among born again Americans, it would be a close contest. When the rest of the nation’s voters are factored into the equation, Sen. Obama is staked to a commanding lead among likely voters, 50% to 37%. In large part this lead is due to the substantial support he receives among other self-identified Christians, that is, individuals who describe themselves as Christians but who are not categorized as born again. Among this group, 54% plan to vote for Sen. Obama, compared with 33% for Sen. McCain. This voting segment represents 36% of likely voters.

Other voters who do not identify themselves as Christians comprise 14% of all likely voters. Among those who are associated with other faiths, the Democratic Senator generates a 60-point gap over the Republican Senator (74% versus 14%). While not as pronounced, atheists and agnostics also strongly prefer Sen. Obama over Sen. McCain (50% versus 28%).

Age and Christian Voters

There has been significant coverage this election cycle about the generational differences within the Christian community – that younger Christians are breaking ranks with their parents’ political persuasions. The Barna research confirms that born again voters are divided along age lines. Born again Christians in their forties and fifties prefer Sen. McCain by a five-point margin (48% versus 43%), while born again adults in their sixties and older favor the Arizona Republican by ten points (47% versus 37%). On the other hand, among the youngest born again voters – those in their twenties and thirties – Sen. Obama is a 13-point front-runner (51% to 39%).

Comments on the Race

The next few weeks would have to bring about a major change among born again voters in order for Republicans to retain the White House, according to David Kinnaman, who conducted the survey.

“At the beginning of the summer, the Christian community was moderately engaged in the presidential campaigns, but they are now much more interested in and willing to vote in the election. Yet, the problem for the McCain campaign is that their increased enthusiasm for the election has not translated into support the way it did leading up to 2004. Even conservative evangelical voters – while still solidly in McCain’s column – are surprisingly willing to consider Obama’s candidacy.

“Anything can happen, but the election is clearly Obama’s to lose,” commented Kinnaman, president of the California-based Barna Group. “If Obama goes on to win, one of the significant stories will be the profile of the faith vote. People will wonder whether he won because of effective outreach by Democrats to the Christian community, ineffective efforts of Republicans, or shifts in the voting priorities of Christians, especially younger believers. Whatever the case, compared to when the names Kerry and Bush were on the ballot, the Democrats are poised to make up significant ground among born again and evangelical voters.”

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About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1005 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, October 11-15, 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,” 617 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 those who consider themselves to be Christian but do not meet the not born again criteria.

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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