Even though evangelicals have been greatly targeted by a number of candidates running for the White House this year, a recent study shows that they are less engaged in the presidential media blitz than any other faith group — despite their previously high degree of interest in past election cycles.
The latest research conducted by the Barna Group reveals that even with record-breaking audiences watching this year’s televised presidential debates — along with massive crowds attending campaign rallies and long lines showing up at presidential primaries through the first part of February — an unexpected small amount of American voters are paying close attention to the primary races.
“Less than one-third (31 percent) said they were following the news about the election ‘very closely’ while almost half (45 percent) said they were following the activity ‘somewhat closely,’” Barna reports.
Surprisingly to many, evangelical Christians have been identified by Barna as the least-engaged faith group when it comes to following how campaigns are doing in this election cycle — a drastic change from campaign years in the past.
“Only one out of five evangelicals (20 percent) said they were following news about the campaign very closely,” researchers indicate. “Voters who associate with non-Christian faiths (such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism) reported the highest level of engagement: 41 percent were following campaign news very closely, which is twice the proportion among evangelical Christians. Even religious skeptics (atheists, agnostics and unaffiliated) were substantially more engaged in the race than evangelicals (36 percent vs. 20 percent).”
Breaking it down further, the percentages of those who are “very closely” following news about the 2016 Presidential Election are as follows: Protestants (26 percent), non-evangelical born again Christians (30 percent) notional Christians — those considering themselves Christians but have not made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ — (30 percent) and Catholics (38 percent). These numbers are a direct contrast to the previous four presidential elections, when Protestants were more engaged than Catholics.
The drop off in engagement of evangelical Christians has puzzled researchers, who recognize this segment of society as being the most likely to understand the importance of election outcomes on America.
“What makes the indifference of evangelicals even more surprising is the fact that they are the religious segment most likely to characterize the outcome of this year’s presidential election as ‘extremely important to the future of the United States,’” Barna points out. “More than three-quarters (78 percent) classified the election in this way, compared to about half of the other faith groups, such as non-evangelical born again Christians (54 percent), notional Christians (52 percent), people aligned with non-Christian faiths (49 percent) and religious skeptics (57 percent).”
Media to blame?
Those conducting the survey attribute this paradox to the media’s presentation of races, which is the medium most Americans use to stay up-to-date on news regarding the election process.
“Evangelicals have had a long-running feud with the media, believing they consistently (and intentionally) provide inaccurate and inadequate reporting of what is really happening in the world, including election-related events and information,” researchers assert. “Barna finds that just 5 percent of evangelicals believe the media is providing fair and objective coverage of the campaign. However, that figure is similar to the mere 8 percent of non-evangelical voters who believe the media is providing completely fair and objective news and information about the race.”
Faith in the media as a reliable source for accurate information about the presidential race has plummeted of late.
“In fact, fewer than one out of five registered voters — just 17 percent — believes the media is providing campaign reporting that is either completely or mostly fair and objective,” the report explains. “A plurality of the voting public believes the media are inconsistent in their reporting about the election — sometimes fair and objective, sometimes unfair and subjective.”
Here is the breakdown on the divergent views religious groups have about the credibility of the media, with the following listing showing the percentage of those that regard media outlets as delivering “completely or mostly unfair and subjective reporting:”
- Evangelical Christians‒ 51 percent
- Protestants‒ 28 percent
- Practicing Christians‒ 28 percent
- Non-evangelical born again‒ 27 percent
- Skeptics‒ 27 percent
- All registered voters‒ 26 percent
- Non-practicing Christians‒ 24 percent
- Catholics‒ 23 percent
- Notional Christians‒ 22 percent
- Non-Christian faith‒ 18 percent
On the other side, here is how the religious groups stacked up when asked whether they believe the media delivers “completely or mostly fair and objective reporting:”
- Catholics‒ 34 percent
- Non-Christian faith‒ 33 percent
- Notional Christians‒ 33 percent
- Non-practicing Christians‒ 31 percent
- Skeptics‒ 31 percent
- All registered voters‒ 30 percent
- Practicing Christians‒ 29 percent
- Non-evangelical born again‒ 28 percent
- Protestants‒ 26 percent
- Evangelical Christians‒ 16 percent
Analyzing the results
Summing up the results tallied from American voters, Barna’s special analyst for the 2016 election polling, George Barna, says that the unusual circumstances of the current election season have contributed to the peculiar findings.
“Nobody expected 17 candidates to seek the GOP nomination … Nobody expected Donald Trump to be taken seriously by Republican voters, much less to emerge as the man to beat,” Barna asserts. “Nobody expected the last two credible Republican candidates to be those representing the Washington outsiders. Nobody expected a democratic socialist to give Hillary Clinton serious competition. Nobody expected so many evangelicals to back a Republican candidate whose lifestyle has consistently conflicted with their values. Nobody expected the televised debates to draw such record-breaking audiences. And the list goes on.”
The research expert notes reasons why he believes Bible-believing Christians have distanced themselves from the early stages of the election process thus far.
“When we look at a more accurately defined evangelical population — not the self-defined evangelicals used by media outlets — it's certainly surprising to see this segment delay their focus on the race,” Barna explained. “And that is certainly all we’re talking about at this point: a group that is waiting to see what happens with the nominating process before devoting a greater mind share to election news. They admit this is a highly important election for the fate of the nation. They consistently strive to influence the direction of the nation.”
He points out that by watching events unfold from afar, evangelicals are being more discerning with how they are spending their time — avoiding much of the campaign hype promoted by the media that isn’t necessarily based on fact.
“And the combination of evangelicals who are watching the unfolding of the race either very or somewhat closely is as high or higher than that of any segment,” Barna continued. “They are conscious of what is happening but not yet fully focused. We expect to see their attentiveness climb substantially over the next few months.”
The acclaimed research analyst also stressed why he believes people from non-Christianity faiths have taken a much greater interest in this year’s presidential campaigns.
“The presence of two outspoken fighters who have given voice to their views — through Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders — has galvanized the attention and the hopes of many of those who are religious but not Christian,” Barna concludes. “If Mr. Sanders eventually drops out of the race, this may dampen some of that enthusiasm in the months to come.”