Apr 5, 2011

From the Archives

Survey: Voters Most Interested in Issues Concerning Security and Comfort, Least Interested in Moral Issues

A new national survey of registered voters conducted by the Barna Group reveals that the issues that will most affect the candidate people support for President in the 2012 election are most likely to be those affecting their personal security and comfort. The matters that are likely to have the least impact on their choice of candidate are moral issues.

The issues most likely to influence which candidate voters embrace in the 2012 presidential election are health care (which 64% said will have “a lot of influence” on the candidate they choose), tax policies (60%), terrorism (50%) and employment policies (50%).

A second level of influential issues included immigration policies (45%), education policy (44%), the wars in the Middle East (43%), and America’s dependence upon foreign oil (38%).

The issues noted as being least likely to influence how voters feel about potential candidates tended to be those with distinct moral underpinnings. Those matters include domestic poverty policies (37%), abortion (27%), environmental policy (26%), and gay marriage (24%).

Faith Impacts Views
The survey data showed that there are also substantial differences in the importance attached to various issues based upon a person’s faith commitments.

One of the critical voting segments in America is born again Christians, who have represented nearly half of the votes cast in the most recent presidential elections. The interests of born again voters are distinct from those of non-born again adults: there were statistically significant differences in interest levels between those two segments regarding eight of the 12 issues in the survey. In each case where there was a gap between those groups, born again adults were more likely to consider the issue in question to have “a lot of influence” on their candidate selection. The largest gaps related to domestic poverty policy (19 points), terrorism (16 points), abortion (15 points), and dependence on foreign oil (15 points). Unexpectedly, there was no difference in the importance attached to the gay marriage issue between these two groups.

An interesting comparison considers the views of two segments sometimes considered to be at opposite ends of the faith continuum: evangelical Christians and Spiritual Skeptics (e.g., atheists and agnostics). There were statistically significant differences of opinion between the two groups on nine of the twelve issues examined – and, in most cases, those differences were huge. The two groups were more than 20 percentage points apart in relation to the importance of taxes, terrorism, immigration, abortion, and gay marriage. In all nine of the instances of significant differences, evangelicals were more likely than Skeptics to classify the issue as one that will have a lot of influence on their candidate selection in 2012. (See the accompanying table for specific data.)

Issues Influencing Candidate Selection
Question: Many issues will be discussed during the presidential campaign. Please indicate how much influence the candidates’ positions on the particular issues listed will have on your decision of who to vote for in 2012. (INFLUENCE SCALE: a lot, some, not too much, none.)

Another intriguing comparison is between mainline and non-mainline Protestants. There were significant differences between these two groups on nine of the 12 issues studied. The only issues on which the two groups saw eye-to-eye were health care (the top-ranked issue for both segments), education, and wars in the Middle East. The biggest gaps related to gay marriage (deemed to have a lot of influence on their candidate selection by 40% of non-mainline Protestants, but among only 17% of the mainliners) and abortion (highly influential for 43% of the non-mainline group but just 19% of the mainline adults).

The data show that the adults who attend mainline Protestant churches had a response profile that was strikingly similar to that of Skeptics on the moral issues gauged. For instance, relatively few people from each group said gay marriage was important in their candidate selection (17% of mainliners, 20% of Skeptics), as was also true regarding abortion (19% of mainliners, 20% of Skeptics) and domestic poverty (32% of mainliners, 29% of Skeptics).

Protestants and Catholics have become more similar to each other in political matters over the past several decades. On the 12 issues measured in the survey, there were significant differences between these two groups regarding only two issues: abortion and gay marriage. In both cases, Protestants were more likely than Catholics to indicate the issue would play a meaningful role in their candidate selection process. Overall, 35% of Protestants and 25% of Catholics said a candidate’s abortion position would greatly matter to them; one-third of Protestants (33%) and only one-fifth of Catholics (19%) said gay marriage policy would substantially affect their candidate decision.

Major Changes Since 1992
The Barna survey also revealed seismic shifts in the issues that move voters since the 1992 election. Six election cycles ago, the most influential issues were drug law enforcement (listed by 80% of adults as having a lot of influence on their choice of candidate), economic matters (79%), crime reduction and prevention (78%), public education (78%), and health care (75%).

During the intervening 19 years, people’s concerns have changed dramatically. Health care has risen in relative importance (it is currently the top-ranked issue among those studied) but has declined in absolute significance (down 11 percentage points).

Tax policy has doubled in the percentage of adults listing it as a significant influence on candidate selection. In 1992, only three out of every ten adults considered tax policy to be a major influence; today, six out of ten adults rate it as such.

Employment policies have risen in significance by 14 points; educational policy has risen more modestly (five points); the impact of candidates’ abortion position has not changed; and environmental policy has dropped substantially in its influence (down 19 points).

Looking at the role of faith on people’s perspectives, the accompanying table provides some interesting views on the changes that have occurred. Among evangelicals, the impact of health care and abortion on their candidate selection is the same today as it was 19 years ago. However, major shifts have occurred related to employment policy (down 21 points), education policy (down 42 points), and environmental policy (down 28 points).

Catholics have undergone some transitions in their priorities, too. All six of the issues studied in both 1992 and 2011 showed significant drops in influence. The largest of those changes related to education policy (down 26 points), abortion (down 32 points), and environmental policy (down 35 points).

Among Protestants there were significant shifts concerning five of the six issues. The only issue that has not seen a notable change in priority was employment policy. The largest shifts related to education policy (down 18 points) and environmental policy (down 20 points).

Several observations about the findings were offered by the director of the study, George Barna.

“One of the most significant transitions in the past 20 years has been among Catholics. For instance, in the early 1990s, Catholics were among the standard bearers for opposition to abortion. Today, however, the influence of abortion on the voting preferences of Catholics has waned and is more similar to that issue’s level of influence on Skeptics than to the degree of influence it has on candidate choice among Protestants.

“On the other hand,” Barna continued, “evangelical Christians distinguished themselves by their consistency. The issues that mattered to evangelicals in 1992 are the same issues that matter to them today. Some analysts have suggested this means evangelicals are out of touch with the times and are stuck in the past. A more realistic interpretation is that evangelicals’ perspectives have remained stable because they are based on a worldview that does not shift with the ebb and flow of cultural preferences and fads.”

George Barna also noted that the survey in 1992 revealed nine issues which at least 60% of adults said would influence their candidate selection a lot, but just two issues that reached that level in the 2011 study. Asked to explain the large difference the former political campaign manager and pollster for numerous political campaigns offered several options. “First, realize that we are not yet in the thick of the 2012 election cycle. We are still a good eight months away from that, so we are likely to see an increase in people’s attentiveness to the issues and a rise in the stated influence of various issues. Second, in the past two decades we have seen a startling rise in the complexity of society and the fragmentation of people’s lives. Individuals are now less likely to follow a broad slate of issue positions. They focus on two or three matters of primary concern and give only passing attention to the rest. Also, Americans are staggering under the tidal wave of information. With each new election cycle we have seen fewer and fewer people who are truly versed in the nuances of numerous issues. Instead, they are more aware of personality traits and aspects of candidate appearance and confidence. Presidential elections have become more of a personality driven media event than a policy forum. Thirty-second sound bites sometimes represent the totality of what voters know about a particular issue.”

Disclosure: Barna Group is not under contract with any of the potential presidential candidates.

About the Research
This report is based upon online interviews conducted in the Barna Group OmniPoll ℠. This study consisted of a random sample of 1,021 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, February 10 through February 18, 2011. 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.

The survey was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population operated by Knowledge Networks. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have Internet access, Knowledge Networks provides at no cost a laptop and ISP connection. People who already have computers and Internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists then receive unique log-in information for accessing surveys online, and then are sent emails throughout each month inviting them to participate in research.

“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.”

Protestant mainline denominations includes American Baptist Churches in the USA; the Episcopal Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Presbyterian Church (USA); the United Church of Christ; and the United Methodist Church.

Non-mainline denominations are Protestant churches other than those included in the mainline category described above.

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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