by Michael Dimock, Associate Director, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
The New Yorker magazine’s controversial cover has renewed focus on public misperceptions of Sen. Barack Obama’s faith. Despite recurrent media attention to the issue — including extensive coverage of his association with the controversial Protestant cleric, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — the incorrect perception that the Democratic presidential candidate adheres to the Muslim faith or to another non-Christian faith has remained remarkably constant over the course of the 2008 election campaign. The belief that Obama is Muslim, however, appears to have virtually no effect on Republican voters — who overwhelmingly support McCain in any case. But Democrats who share the misperception are significantly less likely to support Obama.
In the latest survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 12% say Obama is Muslim, virtually unchanged from 10% in March. This misperception is not limited to voters who oppose Obama. Identical percentages of Republicans and Democrats (12% each) think he is Muslim, and the link between views of Obama’s religion and their candidate choice vote is strongest among Democrats.
Believing Obama to be Muslim is not a strict litmus test to voters. Among the 12% who say he is Muslim, a slim majority (51%) backs McCain. However, 37% who hold this view say they intend to vote for Obama. Among the majority who identify Obama as Christian these figures are reversed, with 52% backing Obama for president and 39% backing McCain. Overall, 63% of the voters who say they back Obama for president correctly identify him as Christian, but another 9% say he adheres to the Islamic faith.
But questions about Obama’s faith may have an effect beyond the 12% who flatly say Obama is Muslim. One-quarter of voters say they don’t know what Obama’s religious beliefs are, including 10% who say the reason they don’t know is not that they “just don’t know enough about him,” but instead that they’ve “heard different things about his religion.” Significantly, those who have heard different things about Obama’s religion favor McCain by a margin of 48% to 33%, while those who just don’t know enough about it favor Obama 48% to 33%.
Republican voters in the survey overwhelmingly support McCain irrespective of their belief about Obama’s religious faith. But the new Pew Research poll finds that questions about Obama’s faith appear to have a strong influence on candidate preference among the Democrats who either believe Obama is Muslim or who don’t know because they’ve heard different things. These voters are 28 points less likely to say they back Obama for president than are those who believe he is Christian (62% vs. 90%).
The relationship between views of Obama’s religion and the vote is far less substantial among independents — those who believe he is Christian are split evenly between the two candidates, while those who think or have heard Obama is Muslim favor McCain by a 50%-to-34% margin.