Aug 11, 2008

From the Archives

Presidential Race Tightens as Faith Voters Rethink Their Preference

A new nationwide survey of people’s candidate preference conducted by The Barna Group shows some movement over the past two months, with Sen. Obama maintaining a substantial 43% to 34% lead among those who are likely to vote in November, with 5% selecting minor party candidates. That lead is a decline for Sen. Obama’s since early June, when he led his Republican rival 50% to 35% among likely voters. In the past two months, more voters have gravitated to third-party candidates (5%) and a higher proportion is now undecided (up from 15% to 21%).

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Sen. McCain has struggled to ignite widespread interest in his candidacy, as evidenced by the fact that a majority of just three out of the sixty voter segments studied would vote for him if the election were held today. In startling contrast, a majority of the likely voters from 16 voter segments would back Sen. Barack Obama. Among the segments in which neither candidate has majority support, Sen. Obama leads among 35 of those groups while Sen. McCain leads among only three.

The bright spots for Sen. McCain in the latest results are the support from evangelicals (among whom he holds a 61%-17% lead), the notable shift away from Sen. Obama among several key faith communities, and the increased share of undecided voters since the beginning of June. However, at this stage most of these realignments reflect a softening of support for Sen. Obama more than a surge of allegiance to the Arizona Republican.

Reasons for Support

As expected, each candidate is supported for different reasons by their constituency.

The dominant reasons for voters supporting Barack Obama are his efforts to introduce change or new ideas (listed by 28% of his likely voters); his affiliation with the Democratic Party (15%); his positions regarding the economy (14%); his stand on the war (10%); and voters liking him as a person (10%).

The primary reasons why John McCain’s supporters back him include his experience (24%); his affiliation with the Republican Party (14%); the perception that he knows what America needs (13%); and his stands regarding the economy (10%).

When comparing the dimensions on which each candidate stands out in the eyes of voters, Sen. Obama emerged as the candidate of new ideas, for being black (mentioned as their reason for supporting him by 9%), for being different from George Bush (9%), and for his positions on health care (9%). In each case, the percentage of people naming those reasons substantially exceeded the percentage that identified those as reasons for their support of the Republican candidate.

Similarly, Sen. McCain stood out as being more likely to gain support related to his experience, knowing what the nation needs, for his position on taxes (9%), for being conservative (8%), for being a war hero (8%), and because of his military background (6%).

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Understanding Evangelicals

One of the most frequently reported on groups of voters is evangelicals. Most media polls use a simplistic approach to defining evangelicals, asking survey respondents if they consider themselves to be evangelical. Barna Group surveys, 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 differences between the two approaches are staggering.

Using the common approach of allowing people to self-identify as evangelicals, 40% of adults classify themselves as such. Among them, 83% are likely to vote in November. Among the self-reported evangelicals who are likely to vote, John McCain holds a narrow 39% to 37% lead over Sen. Obama. Nearly one-quarter of this segment (23%) is still undecided about who they will vote for.

Using the Barna approach of studying people’s core religious beliefs produces a very different outcome. Just 8% of the adult population qualifies as evangelical based on their answers to the nine belief questions. Among that segment, a significantly higher proportion (90%) is likely to vote in November, and Sen. McCain holds a huge lead (61%-17%) over the Democratic nominee. Overall, just 14% of this group remains undecided regarding their candidate of choice.

More Confusion in Polls

Another quirk within many election surveys is the reporting of candidate preference based upon the views of registered voters rather than those of likely voters. In the past three presidential elections, just two-thirds of all voting-age citizens were registered to vote, and 85% of them did so. Tracking the opinions of all registered voters rather than just those of people who are likely to vote distorts the public’s perception of the race as it progresses.

The significance of this difference in methodology is evident in this year’s election. Among people who are likely to vote in November, based on being registered to vote, having voted in recent elections, and having a strong intent to vote this year, Sen. Obama leads Sen. McCain 43% to 34%. Among people who are registered to vote but are not likely to vote in November, the Illinois Democrat holds a commanding 45% to 13% margin. When all of those opinions are added together, the effect is to widen the lead of the Democratic challenger to a 43% to 29% advantage.

The Faith-Driven Vote

For the most part, the various faith communities of the U.S. currently support Sen. Obama for the presidency. Among the 19 faith segments that The Barna Group tracks, evangelicals were the only segment to throw its support to Sen. McCain. Among the larger faith niches to support Sen. Obama are non-evangelical born again Christians (43% to 31%); notional Christians (44% to 28%); people aligned with faiths other than Christianity (56% to 24%); atheists and agnostics (55% to 17%); Catholics (39% vs. 29%); and Protestants (43% to 34%). In fact, if the current preferences stand pat, this would mark the first time in more than two decades that the born again vote has swung toward the Democratic candidate.

However, while there has been little movement since the beginning of June among most voting segments (such as ethnic groups, age groups, or geographic slices), there has been substantial churn among religious segments. During the past two months, Sen. Obama’s lead has eroded substantially among non-evangelical born again Christians (a decline of nine points); active Christians (a 20-point drop); Protestants (down 13 points); and Catholics (down 11 points).

While some Christian voters seem to be questioning their early support for Obama, the McCain candidacy does not seem to be gaining momentum among evangelicals. Since June, the current level of support Sen. McCain has among evangelical voters has declined significantly (dropping from 78% to 61%).

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Where the Race is Headed

George Barna, who has managed various political campaigns and been involved in polling for many candidates, directed the study. He believes the faith community may yet emerge as the deciding factor in what many analysts consider to be a certain victory for Barack Obama.

“It is unusual to see such significant movement within the core segments of the Christian community,” he explained. “While there is still a decided preference for Senator Obama, the more conservative element of the Christian population is slowly coming to grips with what an Obama presidency might be like. As the finer points of a wide range of issues are clarified by each nominee, the initial excitement about Senator Obama has lost some luster to an increasing number of people whose vote is influenced by their spiritual perspectives. If Sen. McCain converts such apprehensions into votes, this will be a closer race than many have anticipated.”

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 August 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.

“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 born again criteria.

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

© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.

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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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