Jun 7, 2004

From the Archives

Tight Presidential Race Influenced By People’s Faith

As the political season begins to hit full stride with commercials, campaign appearances and seemingly endless analysis of November’s presidential election– a new survey from The Barna Group indicates that people’s choice of candidate is more likely to be influenced by their faith than their party preference or demographic background.

In a national survey of 1618 adults, including 1260 registered voters, the Barna study discovered that the leader in the presidential race depends on how you analyze the data. When asking all adults who are old enough to vote whom they prefer, Democratic challenger John Kerry leads President Bush by a slim margin, 43% to 40%, with independent candidate Ralph Nader garnering 5%, other candidates gaining 5%, and just 6% currently undecided.

However, when only registered voters are considered, the race is a replay of the 2000 election between Mr. Bush and Al Gore: a dead heat, 43% to 43%.

Another way of examining the data are by measuring the opinions of people whose past voting behavior and current attitudes toward the election suggest that they are likely to actually vote. Among likely voters, Mr. Bush holds a small lead over Mr. Kerry, 49% to 44%.

If you were to seek the choice of likely voters who say they are absolutely certain of whom they will vote for in November – a group that constitutes 75% of the likely voters – Mr. Bush’s lead expands to a sizeable 42% to 33% margin.

The research also revealed that the eventual outcome may well hinge on how the candidates relate to people’s faith views.

Faith Groups Differ Dramatically

Evangelicals are just 7% of the national population. However, they receive an inordinate amount of coverage during major elections because of their alleged influence in the political arena. Evangelicals were one of the most prolific supporters of Mr. Bush in the 2000 election: the incumbent received 83% of the votes cast by the group. (In the 1996 election, evangelicals were less impressed with the Republican candidates, giving Bob Dole 76% of their votes.)

In the forthcoming election, an even higher proportion of evangelicals – 86% – expect to cast their ballot for the President. (Only 8% plan to vote for Mr. Kerry.) The only voting blocks of similar consensus in their choice of a candidate are conservative Republicans (94% favoring Mr. Bush), people who voted for Mr. Bush in 2000 (88% again supporting the Texan), liberal Democrats (95% in support of Mr. Kerry), and blacks (77% of whom expect to vote for the Democratic nominee). Gay adults, who constitute 4% of the adult population, are the population group most likely to vote (93% expected turnout) but they are comparatively less unanimous in their candidate of preference (67% to 23% in favor of Mr. Kerry).

Evangelicals are also the faith group most likely to vote (the survey indicates that 88% are highly likely to enter a ballot) and are the population segment most supportive of the President’s performance in office (89% give him a favorable evaluation).

Evangelicals are generally but not exclusively Republican (62%), mostly conservative (75%) and are one of the population segments most likely to registered to vote (84%) and to actually exercise the privilege of voting (88%).

Born again Christians gain lots of media attention during election cycles as well. However, when the evangelical portion of the born again population is removed, the non-evangelical born again segment has a different profile than many expect. This segment, 31% of the adult public, is also above average in terms of being registered to vote (86%). However, it is merely average in terms of showing up on Election Day (65% likelihood, compared to the national average of 67% among registered voters). More surprising are the ideological and party connections of the non-evangelical born again adults. Although the media typically label them “right wing,” only one-third of this group (38%) is politically conservative. Generally thought of as Republican, Barna surveys consistently show that only one-third of this constituency (35%) is associated with the Republican Party. Currently, an even greater percentage is aligned with the Democratic Party (40%).

Perhaps the most surprising revelation about non-evangelical born again Christians, though, is that they presently favor Mr. Bush over Mr. Kerry by a 53% to 35% margin – a substantial difference (18 points) but hardly monolithic. In comparison, agnostics and atheists prefer the Democratic challenger to Mr. Bush (48% versus 24%, a 24 percentage-point gap), and people aligned with non-Christian faiths prefer Mr. Kerry by a 55% to 22% margin (a 33-point gap).

The bulk of the Christian population is comprised of “Notional” Christians – people who describe themselves as Christian but are neither evangelical nor born again. This segment is 39% of the national population. This group is radically divergent from either the evangelical or non-evangelical born again sectors of the Christian body. They have a below-average likelihood of being registered to vote (77%), are overwhelmingly aligned with the Democratic Party (42% versus 27% associated with the Republican Party), and are slightly less likely than other people to vote in November. Only one out of every five describes themselves as “mostly conservative” and a paltry one-out-of-three (34%) approve of Mr. Bush’s performance in office. The result is a complete reversal of the expected “Christian” preference for a candidate: a majority of Notionals (52%) plans to support Mr. Kerry, compared to only one-third (32%) who anticipates voting for Mr. Bush.

Why They Choose Their Candidate

When people who have selected a candidate to support were asked why they chose that candidate, the dominant reason for favoring Mr. Kerry was simple: “he’s not George Bush.” Nearly half of all Kerry supporters (44%) gave this as the most important reason for their choice. The only other reason for supporting Mr. Kerry that was provided by at least one out of every ten of his constituency was his opposition to the war or different approach to foreign policy.

Mr. Bush was selected by his admirers for a wider range of reasons. The most prolific of those were satisfaction with his job performance (25%), his character (18%), his foreign policy and handling of the war (14%), and the integration of his faith and moral views in his presidential decisions (12%).

While 12% of Mr. Bush’s supporters listed his reliance upon his faith in his official duties as a major plus, only 2% of Mr. Kerry’s supporters specified either candidate’s faith views or practices as the dominant reason for backing the Democrat.

Seven percent of Mr. Bush’s base said they prefer him primarily because of his leadership skills, while only 2% of Mr. Kerry’s supporters named leadership as their main reason for selecting the Massachusetts Senator.

Projecting the Outcome

Predicting who will win in November is premature at this stage of the race, according to George Barna, the director of the research project. Not only has the campaign yet to swing into high gear, but also there are still too many undecided voters who are weighing their options.

“If the election were held today,” the researcher explained, “Mr. Bush would be re-elected by a small margin. If we allocate the votes of those who are likely to vote and are still making up their minds, Mr. Kerry would get a majority of the laggards, but not enough to compensate for the large pool of committed votes already lined up with Mr. Bush.

“However, these next five months will be critical in seeing where the undecided voters land,” continued Barna. “They comprise one-fifth of the likely voters. That outcome will be intimately related to people’s faith leanings and how they interpret the moral standards and personal character of the leading candidates. For instance, one-quarter of the non-evangelical born again segment, and one-third of the Notional Christian segment have yet to decide whom they will support. Their choices will tip the scale one way or the other on November 9.”

Barna also identified the historical precedent for each candidate’s faith-driven support. “Mr. Kerry is receiving less support from non-evangelical born again Christians than did either Bill Clinton in 1996 or Al Gore in 2000. Compensating for that, however, is the weaker support given to Mr. Bush by the Notional Christians than they had given to the Republican candidates in the past two elections. Although voters from non-Christian faiths are a small slice of the electorate – just one out of every eight are aligned with non-Christian faiths and one in ten are atheist or agnostic – they overwhelming side with Mr. Kerry. From that perspective, then, Mr. Bush’s chances of re-election hinge squarely on the choices of the Christian body.”

The research pointed out one particular caution for the President’s campaign. “Getting his supporters to actually turnout on Election Day will be critical for Mr. Bush. Currently, there is the danger of his most ardent supporters – the evangelicals – failing to show up because they are so firmly convinced he will win. 81% say the President will win in November; only 6% predict a victory by Mr. Kerry. Non-evangelical born agains are not quite as confident, but they are twice as likely to believe victory will go to Mr. Bush as to expect Mr. Kerry to win. Should that confidence deflate turnout among the Bush support base, a close election could swing to a different outcome.”

Research Source and Methodology

The data in this report are based on a nationwide survey conducted by The Barna Group among 1,618 randomly selected adults during the last week of May. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±2.4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. In total, there were 1260 registered voters, which has a maximum margin of sampling error of ±2.9 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

People in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those individuals coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. The data were subjected to statistical weighting procedures to calibrate the survey base to national demographic proportions. The survey data were collected through a combination of telephone and online surveys. Households selected for inclusion in the telephone sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys 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 were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet 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; contending that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; 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 determined by church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

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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