May 16, 2012 – With Barack Obama’s recent decision to be the first American president to publicly support gay marriage, the lines in the sand are being drawn for the contest between the incumbent and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. A national survey conducted by the Barna Group indicates that despite all the media coverage the president’s new stand on gay marriage received, that issue is not likely to have a major effect on the outcome of the election among most voters. Out of a dozen high profile issues assessed, gay marriage placed tenth in importance and only 31% of voters said this issue would affect their voting “a lot.” In terms of faith segments, while evangelical voters are more concerned about the issue than are most other voters, it is not likely to turn many evangelicals against Mr. Obama since few of them (less than one out of every five) expected to vote for him anyway.
However, a national sample of likely voters interviewed by Barna indicated that of all the different factors they will consider when choosing our next president, each candidate’s positions on important issues will be the single most important component in their candidate choice. More than four out of five likely voters (83%) said that positions on the issues are the most important factor in their decision of which candidate to support on Election Day. The issues that are of greatest significance are health care and tax policy. (For more detail on people’s rankings of campaign issues, see “Election 2012 Priorities” published April 18, 2012 by the Barna Group.)
The second most common factor that voters will examine when making their candidate selection is the character of the men running. Half of all likely voters (51%) listed this as a key matter for them.
Less common factors that will influence people’s choice of candidate include the party affiliation of the candidates (listed by 17% of likely voters); the political experience of the candidates (16%); the candidates’ religious faith (14%); their educational background (6%); their speaking ability (3%); personality (2%); endorsements received (1%); their age (1%); and their physical appearance (less than 1%). Of course, survey respondents may not be fully aware of the factors that influence their presidential selections; however, the research helps to illuminate how they think about their electoral mindset.
The faith leanings of likely voters are related to the perceived importance of these factors. For instance:
• Evangelicals are much more likely than other voters to consider a candidate’s religious faith to be an important clue. Half of evangelicals (50%) listed that as a critical insight compared to just one-quarter of non-evangelical born again voters (23%), and by less than one out of every twenty other voters.
• Evangelicals were less likely than other religious segments to rate political experience as a key factor in their decision. Only one out of every 25 evangelicals (4%) named experience as a key. On average, one out of every six other likely voters considered experience to be an important indicator.
• The religious group that was most distinct in its decision-making process was people associated with non-Christian faiths (e.g., Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.) That small portion of the likely voter population was the most likely of all to rate issue positions as the most significant factor (92%) and they were also much more likely to list party affiliation as a key indicator (32% - double the proportion of all other likely voters). They were also the group least likely to consider character (32%) to be important.
• Catholics and Protestants were generally similar in their outlook on these factors. However, Protestants were slightly less likely to consider issue positions of great importance and were three times more likely to characterize the religious faith of the candidates as important (24% vs. 7%).
• Knowing about the religious faith of candidates was important to more than one out of ten members of a segment among just three segments: evangelicals (50%), non-evangelical born again Christians (23%), and people who attend non-mainline Protestant churches (33%).
• There were notable distinctions within the Protestant community between likely voters attending mainline churches and those attached to non-mainline churches. Mainline adults were more likely to deem candidates’ issue positions as important (91% versus 74%, respectively) and twice as likely to consider political experience to be critical (19% vs. 10%). Those attending non-mainline congregations were three times more likely to label the religious faith of candidates as important information.
One of the intriguing findings of the research was the urgency most voters are placing on November’s outcome. Two-thirds of all likely voters (67%) perceive the 2012 election to be one of the most important races in the past 50 years. Evangelicals and non-evangelical born again Christians are especially likely to express this perspective (73% and 76%, respectively). Skeptics – the segment comprised of atheists and agnostics – are the least likely (56%) to see November’s election as unusually important. Protestants were much more likely than Catholics to perceive this year’s election to be more important than usual (74% compared to 61%).
One of the reasons for such perceived importance is that more than three-quarters of all likely voters (76%) are discouraged by the direction of the nation’s political environment. Only 11% say they are encouraged by the course the nation’s political environment is moving, with the remaining 13% saying they are neither encouraged nor discouraged. Likely voters who are evangelicals are the religious segment most discouraged (85%) while people aligned with non-Christian faith groups are the least discouraged (69%).
Outside Influences on the Outcome
Many voters are also wary of groups that will have exaggerated influence on the outcome of the election. When asked which of three specific groups will have the greatest influence on people’s votes, about half of the likely voters (52%) stated that the media will have the most influence. Somewhat less influential, according to likely voters, will be wealthy donors (41%). Just 7% of likely voters chose the Tea Party as the entity among the three that will have the greatest influence on the outcome of the election.
There was a difference of perspective between those who are Christian and those who are not. A majority of Christians – evangelicals, non-evangelicals born agains, and notionals – expected the media to be the most influential of the three entities. In contrast, non-Christian adults – whether they are aligned with a different faith system or are skeptics – are equally likely to expect wealthy donors and the media to have the greatest influence.
Survey Methodology and Definitions
The study on which this report is based included online surveys with 1,005 adults who were randomly chosen from the 48 continental states. Those individuals were screened for their likelihood of voting in the 2012 General Election in November based on four factors. The filtering process, based on a series of questions related to voter registration, interest in the election, perceived importance of this year’s race, past voting history, and voting intent in 2012, produced a base of 647 likely voters. The maximum margin of sampling error for a sample of that size is estimated to be within +4.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. There are other forms of survey error that cannot be statistically estimated.
The study was conducted between March 14 and 21, 2012 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 panel. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have Internet access, Knowledge Networks provides a laptop and ISP connection at no cost. People who already have computers and Internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists receive unique log-in information for accessing the online survey they were recruited to participate in.
Definitions used in this report are based on various survey questions. For instance, the category described as “born again Christians” is 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 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” represents adults who meet the born again criteria but not the additional evangelical criteria.
“Notional” Christians are individuals who identify themselves as Christian but do not meet the criteria for being “born again.”
“Skeptics” are individuals who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics.
“Mainline Protestant churches” include churches aligned with the following denominations: American Baptist, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, United Methodist, Presbyterian Church in the USA, and United Church of Christ.
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. It conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to moral and spiritual development, and works with a variety of organizations to facilitate the healthy moral and spiritual growth of leaders, children, families, individuals, and Christian ministries.
Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group 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 update on the latest research findings from Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Other research-based resources are also available through this website.
© Barna Group 2012.