Jan 25, 2013

From the Archives

The Role of Faith in the 2012 Election

The 2012 presidential election season was the most expensive in U.S. history—and one of the most contentious campaigns in recent memory. A new nationwide survey by the Barna Group among people who voted in the election reveals the role of faith had substantial influence on the election and upon people’s perspectives regarding the state of the nation and its future.

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How People Voted by Their Faith Inclinations
Although President Obama won the Electoral College vote in a landslide (332 to 206), the popular vote was very close in the 2012 election: Mr. Obama prevailed by a 50% to 48% result. However, looking at the various faith segments, none of them provided an outcome that was nearly as close.

Since 71% of evangelicals described themselves as “mostly conservative on political and social issues,” it is not surprising evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Mr. Romney (81% to 17%). As expansive as that support was, the 81% represented the lowest level of evangelical backing for a Republican candidate since Bob Dole garnered just 74% of the evangelical vote in his 1996 loss to Bill Clinton. It also represents a seven-point decline from the proportion awarded to John McCain in 2008.

Born again Christians who are not evangelicals also supported Mr. Romney in a major way. This group gave the challenger a 56% to 43% edge over the incumbent. That is the highest percentage of votes given by that segment to a candidate in the last five presidential elections (tied with the percentage won by George W. Bush in his successful 2004 re-election bid). That percentage was five points higher than that won by Republican challenger John McCain four years ago. Interestingly, this particular faith segment has distinguished itself as the least predictable group of faith-defined voters. Their vote totals have ranged from giving Democrat Bill Clinton a four-point edge in 1996 to the 13-point differential won by Mr. Romney this year.

In contrast to other Christians, Notional Christians—the large segment of voters who consider themselves to be Christian but are not born again—voted decisively in favor of Mr. Obama (57% to 41%) at a slightly lower rate than did the aggregate born again population (i.e., evangelicals plus non-evangelical born again adults combined to give Mr. Romney a 60% vs. 39% edge). This outcome was not at all surprising; notional Christians have given the Democratic candidate a lopsided victory in each of the last five elections.

Nationally, Notional Christians outnumber all born again adults, but the proportion of adults who voted from each of those segments was nearly identical in 2012 (each was 43% of the electorate). The remaining one out of every seven votes (14%) was cast by people not associated with the Christian faith.

Two-thirds of both the Skeptics and voters associated with non-Christian faiths cast their vote for President Obama. The 68% of Skeptics who voted for the Democratic candidate represents an 8-point decline from the percentage of Skeptics that supported him in his victory in 2008. The 69% he won among people of non-Christian faiths was the largest margin of victory generated from that group since Bill Clinton garnered 89% of the group’s support in 1996.

Catholic voters have a long-established pattern of backing the Democratic nominee. This year proved no different thanks to the 57% to 42% outcome in favor of Mr. Obama. That 15-point margin was the largest among Catholics since Bill Clinton topped Bob Dole by 21 points in 1996.

This year’s Protestant vote was the mirror opposite of the Catholic vote: 57% to 42% in favor of Mr. Romney. That extended the streak to four consecutive elections during which the Republican has gained a majority of the Protestant vote.

Other faith-related segments examined in the Barna study include unchurched voters (one-third of the electorate, backing Mr. Obama, 58% to 32%); mainline Protestant attenders (17% of the voters, siding with Mr. Obama, 48% to 45%); non-mainline Protestant attenders (29% of voters, backing Mr. Romney, 56% to 35%); adults with an active faith (31% of the voting public, supporting Mr. Romney, 56% to 35%); and people with an inactive faith (69% of the public, preferring Mr. Obama by 52% to 39%).

Reasons for Their Preference
Voters in each faith segment studied had a unique profile of reasons for supporting their preferred candidate. Among those who voted for President Obama, non-evangelical born again Christians were most motivated by their dislike for Mitt Romney (18%), appreciation for Mr. Obama’s ideas about the future (16%), his performance in the White House (13%), and his personal character (12%). Notional Christians were most moved by Mr. Obama’s ideas about the future (12%), his character (10%), and his economic plans and policies (10%). Catholics were most likely to prefer his candidacy because of his character (17%) and ideas about the nation’s future (13%). Protestants who supported the president were most compelled by his ideas about the future (15%), his job performance (13%), their dislike for Mr. Romney (12%), and his economic policies (10%).

The data show Protestant voters were the group most likely to be driven by an anti-candidate vote, whether their distaste was directed at Mr. Romney or Mr. Obama. Nearly one-quarter of all Protestants voted against a candidate more than they voted in favor of a candidate.

The survey also discovered about one-quarter of all voters (24%) said they “always vote for the presidential candidate that represents my party.” Perhaps surprisingly, that was less common among evangelicals (17%) than other faith segments. The group most likely to admit to consistently voting the party line was Notional Christians (28%). In this year’s election, a plurality of Notional voters were registered Democrats (43%), with 38% registered as Republicans, and 19% independent of a party affiliation.

The survey found three out of every ten voters (30%) agreed the choice of which presidential candidate to vote for was based more on the character and personality of the candidates than on their positions on the issues. Among the faith groups examined, that approach was least common among evangelicals (26%) and most likely among Catholics (37%).

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How Faith Affected the Vote
About half of the people who voted in November (45%) indicated their faith affected how they voted. Those voters were evenly divided between those who said their faith affected their vote “a lot” and those who said it made less of a difference.

Following a pattern that was evident among more than a dozen indicators of the relationship between faith and voting, people who voted for President Obama were significantly less likely to say their vote was affected by their faith than were those who voted for Governor Romney. Voters who said their faith affected their vote “a lot” cast their ballot for Mr. Romney by a 2-to-1 margin. Those who said faith had no affect on their voting preferred Mr. Obama by a 3-to-2 margin.

The impact of one’s faith varied across faith segments. Three-quarters of evangelicals (72%) said their faith affected their presidential preference a lot. That was more than double the proportion of non-evangelical born again voters (34%) who were similarly affected. Very few notional Christians (16%), voters of non-Christian faiths (17%), Catholics (19%), or Skeptics (5%) said their candidate choice was impacted a lot by their faith.

Faith Overload?
Americans were evenly divided as to whether the religious beliefs and behavior of the candidates received too much attention. Overall, 46% said there was too much attention paid to faith matters, while 48% disagreed with that concern. In total, one-quarter of voters (27%) strongly felt there was too much emphasis on candidate’s faith. Only one-fifth of evangelicals (21%) felt too much attention was paid to the candidates’ faith, but half of all notional Christians (53%) held that position.

Relatively few voters felt Mitt Romney’s affiliation with the Mormon church made them less likely to vote for him. In total, 9% of voters felt strongly that his Mormon connection diminished their likelihood of supporting him, with another 5% saying they agreed somewhat that his choice of faith affected their vote. Surprisingly, evangelicals were slightly less likely than other Christians to say his Mormonism affected their vote negatively (10% vs. 14%, respectively).

Impartial Media?
The media received poor marks from the electorate regarding the quality of reporting provided during the campaign. Only one-sixth of voters (16%) felt strongly that the media provided “balanced and unbiased coverage of the presidential campaign,” with an additional one-sixth (16%) agreeing less strongly. In contrast, close to half of the voting public (44%) strongly disagreed the media had been balanced and unbiased, and one-fifth said they disagreed somewhat with the notion.

Evangelicals were the segment most put off by the media’s coverage: 65% strongly rejected the idea that the coverage had been balanced and unbiased. However, other segments also expressed strong reservations about the media’s bias, led by registered Republicans (64%), Romney voters (63%), and conservatives (62%) as well as bare majorities of Baby Boomers, parents with children in their home, and upscale adults.

A majority of voters also concurred the media had been “too intrusive into the personal lives of the presidential candidates.” Fifty-four percent of voters agreed with that sentiment, a proportion that was similar across all of the Christian segments evaluated. Only one out of every seven voters (15%) strongly disagreed with this concern.

America’s Future
Voters were evenly divided as to whether or not the United States will be better off four years from now than it is today. Less than half (48%) agreed it will be, but nearly as many (43%) dismissed the notion. Evangelicals were by far the group least likely to expect a better future than present (14%), while Notional Christians (54%) and Catholics (53%) were the faith segments most likely to expect better times ahead.

One view most voters agreed upon is that the country seems more divided now than at any time during their lifetime. Three out of four voters (74%) agreed. That was led by evangelicals, among whom nine out of ten (89%) embraced this sentiment.

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Voting Process
The Electoral College continued to take hits from voters. Nearly two-thirds (64%) said they would prefer that the presidential campaign be decided by the popular vote rather than Electoral votes. That includes half of all voters (49%) who strongly agreed they would prefer reliance on the popular vote totals. In the Obama-Romney contest, Mr. Obama won the popular vote 50% to 48%. The President won the Electoral College tally by a more imposing 62% to 38% tally.

Evangelicals were the faith segment most frustrated by the Electoral College. Almost three-quarters of them (73%) opted for a move to the popular vote.

Voters were even more concerned about the assumed ignorance of the issues by other voters. The survey revealed four out of five voters (82%) agreed, “Most people do not know enough about the major issues to be well-informed voters.” That proportion characterized the views of all the Christian voter segments except evangelicals, among whom an even higher percentage (90%) concurred with the statement.

Ideology and Faith
There is a correlation between faith and political ideology. In the 2012 election, the more theologically conservative a voter was, the more likely they were to also hold conservative social and political views. For instance, 71% of evangelicals described themselves as politically conservative, and just 1% said they were politically liberal. Evangelicals were also the only faith segment for which a majority did not describe themselves as politically moderate.

Among non-evangelical born again voters 38% claimed to be politically conservative and just 10% said they were politically liberal. One-quarter of Notional Christians (27%) were politically conservative and 14% were politically liberal. Voters aligned with non-Christian faiths were evenly split between being politically conservative (20%) and liberal (21%). The most liberal-leaning segment were the Skeptics, with only 9% claiming to be politically conservative and one-third (33%) self-defined as politically liberal.

Given the strong link between ideology and party identification, it was not surprising to find the only faith segment for which a majority (57%) was Republican was evangelicals. The remaining evangelicals were evenly divided between affiliation with the Democratic Party (20%) and an independent affiliation (22%). Non-evangelical born again adults were evenly divided between affiliating with the Republican (41%) and Democratic Party (40%). Notional Christians were more likely to align with the Democrats (43%) than Republicans (38%). Non-Christian adherents were more than twice as likely to be a Democrat (50%) as a Republican (22%), with a similar party profile among Skeptics (46% Democrat, 25% Republican).

The survey was conducted by the Barna Group, which is a non-partisan, non-sectarian research organization that has been studying many facets of the intersection between faith and culture since 1984.

Survey Methods and Definitions
This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by the Barna Group with a random sample of 1,008 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, November 6-10, 2012. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The survey included interviews among 771 registered voters who voted in the November 6 election. The estimated maximum margin of sampling error associated with the sample of voters is ±3.5 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.

“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described below) 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 the principles 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, the denominational affiliation of the church attended, or self-identification. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

“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.”

“Non-evangelical born again Christians” are those who meet the born again criteria (described above) but do not meet the evangelical criteria (also listed above).

The category of “Skeptics” includes individuals who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or having no religious faith.

Mainline Protestant denominations include 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 Protestant denominations are Protestant churches other than those included in the mainline category described above.

Those defined as political “liberals,” “moderates,” and “conservatives” are based on self-identification when asked to identify their common viewpoint on political or social issues. Response options include “mostly conservative,” “mostly liberal,” and “somewhere in-between.”

“Unchurched” adults are respondents who have not been to a religious worship service in the last six months, not including special events such as weddings or funerals.

People in the “active faith” category are those who during the previous seven days had attended a Christian church service, prayed to God, and read from the Bible other than during a church event. People who did not meet this standard were categorized as those with an “inactive faith.”

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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