A nationwide study is proving that the 2016 presidential election is coming down to be a matter of faith for most.
According to the latest Barna poll, faith has become the “focal point” concerning who will be elected the next president, come November, as the leading candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties have been extensively engaged in dialogue concerning their own spiritual values and the faith of Americans, in general.
Contributing to the conversation, faith leaders from coast to coast — and even Pope Francis — are increasingly endorsing presidential candidates and giving their opinions about their political platforms regarding virtually every social issue.
To put the critical bearing of faith on the 2016 election into perspective, the Barna Group set out to find out how people from various faith sectors in the United States weigh in on the presidential candidates.
“The survey found that the widely reported gaps in candidate preference based on party affiliation, political ideology, race and age are not the only schisms making the 2016 campaign such fascinating political theater,” Barna reports. “The five unique personal faith segments in America —  evangelicals,  non-evangelical born again Christian,  notional Christians,  people associated with non-Christian faiths and  religious skeptics — hold substantially different attitudes and candidate preferences.”
Making a good or bad impression?
With the playing field being narrowed from 17 to five after the first three Republican primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, a closer examination on how sectors of different faith groups view the remaining candidates was closely examined. The results show a great divergence among Americans belonging to different faith sectors. To come up with the “net scores,” Barna calculated the difference from candidates’ “very favorable” scores from their “very unfavorable scores” for a plus (+) or minus (-) rating.
“Among all U.S. registered voters, not a single candidate had a positive net score — meaning that each candidate generated a higher number of ‘very unfavorable’ than ‘very favorable’ opinions,” Barna researchers divulged. “The best net favorability scores were accorded to Bernie Sanders (-7), and Marco Rubio (-9). At the other end of the spectrum, the worst net favorable ratings were awarded to Donald Trump (-32) and Ted Cruz (-20).”
However, when the results were divided among faith groups, the numbers varied widely.
“Among evangelicals, the best net favorability scores were associated with Ben Carson (+35), Rubio (+27) and Ted Cruz (+26),” the survey showed. “The worst score, by a long shot, went to Hillary Clinton (-61). It is worth noting that evangelicals gave both Trump (-38) and Sanders (-30) overwhelmingly negative favorability ratings.”
Positive views of conservative Christian candidates dropped dramatically when the numbers for non-evangelicals were tallied, as this grouping did not register a positive general take on any candidate.
“Non-evangelical born again Christians — those who have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today, and believe when they die they will go to Heaven, but are not evangelical — had somewhat different views,” researchers pointed out. “The best ratings were given to Rubio (-1), followed closely by Cruz (-5) and Carson (-5). The lowest scores went to Trump (-30), and Clinton (-24).”
Another drastic change was witnessed when looking at the ratings given by “notional Christians” regarding the candidates.
“Notional Christians — those who consider themselves to be Christian but they have not made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today, or believe that when they die they will go to Heaven — gave their best favorability ratings to John Kasich (-7) and Rubio (-7). Cruz and Trump received the lowest ratings from these voters.”
When looking at those ascribing to non-Christian world religions, the Democratic candidates scored the highest — by far.
“Adults who are active in faiths other than Christianity — such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism — took a distinctly different view of the candidates,” researchers noted. “They handed two of them — Sanders and Clinton — positive ratings overall (+10 and +2, respectively). The most negative ratings from this group went to Trump (-42), Cruz (-31), and Carson (-28).”
Those of no faith at all overwhelmingly gave the self-proclaimed socialist and progressive former first lady candidates the best ratings.
“Spiritual skeptics — such as atheists and agnostics — were also unique in their favorability profile,” the survey revealed. “Skeptics had a positive [net] view of Sanders (-20), but were less favorable of Clinton (-7) and much less favorable of Trump (-49), Cruz (-42), and Carson (-41).”
Breaking things down even further, Barna revealed that born-agains had their strong favorites.
“The picture changes again when we eliminate the effect of partisanship and examine favorability scores within party lines — and especially when we consider people’s faith alignments,” Barna explained. “For instance, Republican voters who are born again Christians had the most favorable [net] views of Ted Cruz (+27) and Marco Rubio (+22); a moderately favorable view of Ben Carson (+14); and were indifferent to Donald Trump (+1), largely due to the negative views of him held by evangelicals. John Kasich was the only candidate that born again Republicans gave an unfavorable rating (-16).”
And the ratings for candidates with a biblical worldview plummet even further with Republicans who are not born-again believers — notional Christians, people of faiths other than Christianity, agnostics and atheists.
“Marco Rubio received the best net favorability score (+13), followed by Trump (+8) and Cruz (+7). Both Carson (-5) and Kasich (-3) generated unfavorable scores,” the results show for these groups.
Protestants and Catholics weighed in differently, as the two groups only agreed on their view of two candidates — Rubio, who they rated positively, and Trump, about whom they felt indifferent.
“Protestants were quite positive about Cruz (+24) and Carson (+14), while Catholics disliked Carson (-14) and were indifferent to Cruz (+1),” the statistics revealed. “Both faith families disliked Kasich.”
When a closer look was taken at devout Bible-believing Christians, another picture was presented.
“Practicing Christians — people who attend church regularly, say their religious faith is very important in their life, and pray at least once a week — were generally very similar in the favorability ratings to those awarded by the aggregate born again segment, with one significant distinction,” the research report continued. “They clearly dislike Donald Trump, awarding him a -15 net score — compared to a +1 among all born-again Republicans).”
A different story was found concerning Democrats, who appear to be less critical of their candidates, who they predominantly view in a favorable light — much more than Republican voter view their conservative candidates.
“Among the Democrats, every religious segment studied gave Hillary Clinton strongly positive net scores, ranging from +23 among skeptics to +48 among practicing Christians,” the research states. “Appreciation for Bernie Sanders was more reserved, with the notable exception of skeptics, who gave him a +47 net score. Also notice that the positive score given to Sanders by skeptics was double the net score awarded by them to Clinton.“
Taking it to the polls
When asked who they would vote for today, Democrats predominantly backed Clinton.
“Nearly two-thirds of the born again Christians who are Democrats (63 percent) supported her over Bernie Sanders,” Barna reports. “ A smaller majority of the non-born again Democrats (54 percent) gave her an edge, but that hides the differences between the three faith niches that comprise that group. Specifically, notional Christians and adults associated with non-Christian faiths both sided with Clinton (61 percent and 56 percent, respectively) but the skeptics preferred Sanders (51 percent). Protestants (66 percent) were slightly more likely than Catholics (59 percent) to vote for Clinton. Practicing Christians who are Democrats also chose Clinton by a 4:1 margin (69 percent).”
Trump trumped the competition with Republicans voters overall, but the results were quite different when the numbers were tallied specifically for evangelicals and practicing Christians.
“Among evangelicals, voters were split between Cruz (38 percent) and Carson (35 percent),” the study points out. “Rubio only attracted 14 percent and Trump got 11 percent. Cruz won over practicing Christians by a comfortable margin with 30 percent to Carson’s 20 percent and Trump’s 18 percent. Rubio attracted 15 percent of those active Christians.”
Surprising to some, evangelicals differed greatly from non-evangelical born-again Christians.
“Among the non-evangelical born again public, Trump was the clear favorite (38 percent), equaling the support for Cruz (23 percent) and Carson (15 percent) combined,” the results show. “The gap between each segments’ voting preferences was substantial: a 27-point difference regarding Trump, 14 points related to Rubio, eight points concerning Cruz, and seven points associated with Carson.”
Non-Christians and those who proclaim to be Christians, but do little to practice their faith, also had their clear favorite — Trump.
“Among notional Christians, Trump was the favorite (43 percent), holding a comfortable lead over Rubio (26 percent), with Cruz a distant third (15 percent),” Barna revealed. “Among the two segments that reject Christianity (i.e., people from other faiths plus skeptics) Trump had his highest level of support (46 percent) and his biggest lead (a 23-point margin over Rubio’s 23 percent).
Trump also gains great resonance with the two major Christian faith groups.
“Comparing the views of Protestant and Catholic voters, among the Republicans it is clear that the two candidates who appeal most to Catholics are Trump (44 percent) and Rubio (22 percent),” the researchers explain. “Protestants are more divided — [a]lthough Trump leads among them (29 percent), he has stiff competition from Cruz (24 percent) and Carson (21 percent). Rubio — despite his frequent mentions of his faith in Christ and the importance of his religious beliefs — has generated support among just 15 percent of Protestants.”
Despite his leading numbers, political commentators emphasize that Trump does not have a majority vote in any of the four primary states, while Barna notes that the billionaire failed to capture the majority of any religious segment — coming closest to the majority (46 percent) with non-born-again Republicans.
Barna also found out what American adult voters thought about the character of the candidates and what drove them to put their support behind them.
“There were several dozen reasons offered by people, but only two of those were listed by at least 10 percent of the public: leadership ability (11 percent) and experience (11 percent),” the study uncovered. “Other reasons that were mentioned by at least 5 percent of the voters surveyed included being honest and trustworthy (9 percent), caring about people like the respondent (8 percent), the candidate’s position on economic affairs (8 percent), the candidate’s political ideology (7 percent), their character (6 percent), intelligence (5 percent), and positions on moral issues (5 percent). Five percent also chose a specific candidate as the lesser of all evils, noting that they disliked the alternative choices.”
And here are the motivating top factors (10 percent and higher) Barna revealed that spurred the different groups to make their choices for president:
- Evangelicals were most likely to choose a candidate because of his or her character (26 percent), positions on moral issues (19 percent), and leadership ability (15 percent)
- Non-evangelical born again voters were looking for experience (14 percent) and the candidate’s position on economic matters (12 percent)
- Notional Christians sought candidates on the basis of experience (13 percent), being honest and trustworthy (13 percent), and leadership ability (12 percent)
- Voters aligned with a non-Christian faith were most concerned about the candidate’s ideology (12 percent) and positions on moral issues (12 percent)
- Skeptics paid closest attention to whether a candidate seemed to care about people like them (12 percent), his or her ideology (12 percent), and leadership ability (10 percent)
The least motivating factors had to do with candidates’ positions on immigration (4 percent) or national security (4 percent) and electability (2 percent).
Factors that matter most
Voters’ reasoning for choosing their candidates vary significantly between party lines, with Republicans weighing character more greatly between the two.
“[O]n the Republican side, Donald Trump’s primary appeal relates to perceived leadership — a trait ascribed to him by 16 percent of his supporters — his positions on the economy (13 percent), and being honest (7 percent),” Barna explained. “Marco Rubio is most likely to attract people because he is viewed as honest and trustworthy (21 percent), a strong leader (12 percent), consistently conservative (11 percent), has good character (10 percent), and is preferable to the other choices (10 percent). Ted Cruz appeals to his supporters on the basis of his character (13 percent), ability to lead (13 percent), being honest and trustworthy (8 percent), and caring about people like the respondent (7 percent).”
What voters on the Left are looking for in their candidates is a bit different.
“Among the Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton’s appeal comes from her experience (cited by 22 percent of her supporters as their motivation), leadership ability (13 percent), and for caring about people like the respondent (8 percent),” the Democratic numbers show. “Bernie Sanders attracted voters because they perceive that he cares about people like them (22 percent), they relate to his ideology (16 percent), believe he is honest and trustworthy (9 percent), and they appreciate both his intelligence (7 percent) and his experience (7 percent).”
What to make of the results
Barna Group Founder George Barna says the study’s results show important it is for candidates to get their core messages across clearly.
“Messaging and positioning are of great importance in these campaigns, especially since most of the people voting are relatively poorly informed about both issues and candidates,” Barna asserts. “Driving home a specific message or image that people believe, recall, and act upon can spell the difference between victory and defeat.”
He uses the Democratic candidates to make his case and point.
“If Sanders can persuade the voting public that Clinton’s experience is less important than being honest and trustworthy, she will be in trouble,” the research guru contends. “About one-quarter of her supporters choose her because of her experience, but only 3 percent select her because of her honesty. Yet, being honest and trustworthy is generally viewed by voters as among the most critical characteristics in their candidate selection process. That is certainly a point of vulnerability for Clinton.”
Barna then took his argument to the Republican side.
“Similarly, if Rubio’s competitors can convince his current supporters that he is ideologically indistinguishable from them, and that voting for him as the lesser of evils is an inappropriate approach to voting, that could wipe out close to one-quarter of his support,” the Christian researcher explained. “His biggest strength is the image of trustworthiness and honesty. If his competitors were to neutralize that perception, Rubio would struggle to stay afloat in the race.”
Also noted was how faith plays a major factor in how Americans vote.
“Evangelicals, whose faith hinges on obedience to God’s commands, are far more interested in the character of candidates than any other segment,” Barna continued. “They are also much less likely to be focused on the electability or experience of candidates. In contrast, the non-evangelical born again and Notional Christians — groups not as devoted to biblical applications to every aspect of life — are more focused on pragmatic outcomes than theological foundations. Consequently, it is not surprising to see them elevate the importance of matters such as accomplishments and electability.”
He points out the deep dichotomy between the voting practices of believers and non-believers.
“Voters connected to non-Christian faiths are most interested in electability, the ideology of a candidate and their positions on moral issues,” Barna informed. “Unlike evangelicals, who share a deep interest in moral positions, the non-Christians voters are seeking someone who is open-minded about matters of morality.”
The research expert also contends that those who profess to have no faith are looking for a whole different set of credentials from their presidential candidates than those with religious convictions.
“Skeptics, whose theology leads to an emphasis on providing for and protecting oneself and making the most of the moment, emerged as the faith segment most supportive of candidates deemed to care for people like themselves, those whose ideology parallels that of the skeptic, and candidates possessing above-average intelligence,” Barna concludes. “They were also among the voters least interested in the integrity of the candidate and showed relatively less interest in candidates’ positions on issues.”