Summary of Findings
So far religion is not proving to be a clear-cut positive in the 2008 presidential campaign. The candidates viewed by voters as the least religious among the leading contenders are the current frontrunners for the Democratic and Republican nominations — Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, respectively. On the other hand, the candidate seen as far and away the most religious — Mitt Romney — is handicapped by this perception because of voter concerns about Mormonism.
As in the past, most Americans continue to say that it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs. And voters who see presidential candidates as religious express more favorable views toward those candidates than do voters who view them as not religious. But the latest Pew survey finds that candidates for the White House need not be seen as very religious to be broadly acceptable to the voting public.
Among people who offer an opinion of the religiosity of leading Democrats, more say that John Edwards (28%) and Barack Obama (24%) are very religious than say the same about Hillary Clinton (16%). Yet wide majorities see all three as at least somewhat religious, and those who do view the candidates in overwhelmingly favorable terms.
Similarly, just 14% who offer an opinion see Rudy Giuliani as very religious, but another 63% see him as somewhat religious, and both groups offer comparably favorable assessments of the former New York City mayor. Mitt Romney stands apart from the other candidates tested — nearly half (46%) of those who express an opinion say Romney is very religious; that is roughly the same number saying that George W. Bush is very religious (43%), though many more people express an opinion about Bush’s religiosity than Romney’s. However, a quarter of Americans — Democrat, independent and Republican alike — say they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who is Mormon. And those who say this have substantially less favorable impressions of Mitt Romney.
In general, being a Mormon is viewed as far less of a liability for a presidential candidate than not believing in God or being a Muslim. Roughly six-in-ten Americans (61%) say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who does not believe in God, while 45% say they would be reluctant to vote for a Muslim. At the same time, more people express reservations about voting for a Mormon (25%) than about supporting a candidate who is an evangelical Christian (16%), a Jew (11%) or a Catholic (7%).
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted Aug. 1-18 among 3,002 adults, finds that social issues such as abortion and gay marriage continue to be greatly overshadowed in the presidential campaign by both domestic issues and the war in Iraq. This is consistent with a Pew Research Center survey in June in which abortion was rated as the least important issue of the nine tested in the survey (see June 4, 2007: Thompson Demonstrates Broad Potential Appeal).
More than three-quarters of Americans (78%) say domestic issues such as the economy, health care and the environment will be very important in their decisions about whom to support for president; 72% say the same about the war in Iraq. By comparison, just 38% say that social issues like abortion and gay marriage will be very important in their voting decisions.
Social issues are lagging in importance among members of both parties. White evangelical Protestants are the only major political or religious group in which a majority (56%) says that social issues like abortion and gay marriage will be very important in their presidential voting decisions. Even among white evangelicals, however, social issues trail domestic matters and the war in Iraq: 72% of white evangelicals cite the economy and other domestic issues as very important, while 66% rate the war in Iraq as very important to their vote.
The survey finds that the Republican Party continues to hold a substantial advantage over the Democratic Party in terms of being seen as more friendly to religion. Half of Americans say the GOP is friendly to religion, compared with just 30% who see the Democratic Party as friendly toward religion. A plurality (37%) says the Democratic Party is neutral to religion, while 15% see it as unfriendly to religion. The proportion saying the Democratic Party is unfriendly to religion has declined slightly since July 2006 (20%).
In addition, nearly half of Americans (47%) now disagree with the idea that “liberals who are not religious have too much control over the Democratic Party,” and 37% agree with this statement. In July 2005, the public was evenly split as to whether secular liberals exert too much influence over the Democratic Party.
The widespread perception that Mitt Romney is very religious would appear to be an asset for the former Massachusetts governor in his race for the Republican nomination: far more Republicans (44%) than either Democrats (26%) or independents (23%) completely agree that it is important for the president to have strong religious beliefs.
But the political benefit Romney receives from this perception is being offset by the concerns that some voters express about Mormonism. Overall, Romney is viewed favorably by 75% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters who offer an opinion of him. However, his favorability rating is much lower among Republican voters who say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon than among those who have no reluctance about supporting a Mormon (54% vs. 82%).
A quarter of Republican and Republican-leaning voters say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon. But among white Republican evangelical Protestants, 36% express reservations about voting for a Mormon. That compares with 21% of white Catholic Republican voters, and 16% of white non-evangelical Protestant Republicans.
Meanwhile, there is no evidence that Rudy Giuliani’s image has been affected much by his pro-choice stance on abortion. At this stage in the campaign, there is minimal public awareness of Guiliani’s position on abortion. Overall, just 22% of the public — and just 31% of Republicans — know that Giuliani is pro-choice. Even among Republican and Republican-leaning voters who rate social issues as very important, just 33% are aware of Giuliani’s position on abortion.
Perhaps more important, it does not appear that Giuliani’s stance has appreciably hurt his image within his party’s conservative base. Giuliani’s favorability rating among social-issue Republican and Republican-leaning voters who are aware that he is pro-choice is not significantly lower than among those who are unaware of his position on abortion (76% vs. 80%).
Religiosity of ’08 Candidates
The survey finds that all of the leading presidential contenders in both parties are perceived as at least somewhat religious by large majorities of the public. But among those expressing an opinion about the religiosity of the candidates, far more view Romney as “very religious” than say that about the other candidates. Indeed, comparable numbers who expressed an opinion see Romney and President Bush as very religious (46% vs. 43%), though far fewer offered an opinion about Romney’s religiosity than the president’s (47% vs. 87%).
Far smaller numbers view Democrats John Edwards (28%) and Barack Obama (24%) as very religious; still, more people view each of these candidates as highly religious than say that about any other Republican candidate except Romney. Fewer than one-in-five says that John McCain (19%), Fred Thompson (16%) and Rudy Giuliani (14%) are very religious, based on those expressing an opinion, though most see them as at least somewhat religious.
Fewer people view Hillary Clinton as very religious than say that about other leading Democrats (16%). In addition, 31% of Americans view Clinton as not too religious or not at all religious — the highest percentage for any leading candidate in either party. The perception that Clinton is not very religious is widespread among Republicans (55%); among Democrats, by contrast, nearly nine-in-ten see Clinton as religious (25% very religious, 62% somewhat religious). Opinions about Clinton’s religiosity have changed little over the past decade. A 1996 Pew survey found that of those who could rate Clinton’s religiosity, 14% described her as very religious, 56% as somewhat religious, and 31% as not too or not at all religious.
Democrats are substantially more likely than Republicans to describe John Edwards as religious, but even among Republicans nearly three-in-four (73%) say Edwards is religious. Partisan differences are smaller for the other candidates; among those who could rate the religiosity of the candidates, overwhelming majorities in both parties describe Obama, Giuliani, Romney, McCain and Thompson as at least somewhat religious.
Religiosity and Candidate Images
Overall views of the presidential candidates are linked with views of their religiosity; those who perceive a candidate as being very religious tend to express the most favorable overall views of each candidate, followed by those who perceive the candidate as being somewhat religious. Those who view candidates as being not too or not at all religious, on the other hand, are much less likely to express favorable views.
This pattern holds for Republican and Democratic candidates alike. Among those who describe Giuliani as being very religious, 76% express a favorable view of him, as do 73% of those who view him as being somewhat religious. Among those who say Giuliani is not too or not at all religious, by contrast, just 43% say they hold a favorable view. Similarly, 87% of those who describe Clinton as very religious and 72% of those who describe her as somewhat religious express a favorable view of the New York senator; among those who say she is not too or not at all religious, just 22% express a positive view.
While being perceived as highly religious is an asset for candidates, the greatest differences in favorability are between people who view them as at least somewhat religious and people who view them as not too or not at all religious. By contrast, being seen as very religious provides a smaller boost for candidates. Thompson’s favorability rating, for instance, is 30 points higher among those who see him as somewhat religious than among those who see him as not too or not at all religious, but his favorability rating rises only another two percentage points among those who see him as very religious. Similar patterns are seen for the other candidates.
The link between views of a candidate’s religiosity and overall views of the candidate persists regardless of one’s own party affiliation. While Republicans and GOP leaners are much less likely than Democrats to express favorable views of Clinton, members of both parties are much more likely to hold a favorable view of Clinton if they see her as at least somewhat religious.
Four-in-ten Republicans and Republican leaners who say Clinton is very or somewhat religious express a favorable view of her, compared with only 8% among Republicans who see Clinton as not very religious, a difference of 32 percentage points. Likewise, Clinton’s favorability rating is 28 points higher among Democrats and Democratic leaners who say she is religious (90%) than among those who say she is not religious (62%). A similar pattern is seen in both political parties for other candidates.
Notably, even people who themselves are not particularly observant have a more positive opinion of candidates they believe are at least somewhat religious. Among people who attend religious services infrequently —those who attend a few times a year or less often or never — majorities who see all of the candidates as religious have a favorable opinion of them. But fewer than half of infrequent church-goers who see the candidates as not religious express favorable opinions of them.
Romney and Religion
Romney, more than any other candidate, is viewed as highly religious. Yet the political benefit he stands to gain from being perceived as very religious is limited by the reservations that some Americans have about voting for a Mormon.
Among Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters, Romney’s overall favorability rating, though high at 75%, is significantly lower than the favorability ratings of Giuliani (84%) and Thompson (88%), and roughly equal to the favorability rating for McCain (71%). Romney’s standing relative to the other candidates is particularly poor among those who say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon; among this group, Romney’s favorable rating (54%) is substantially lower than those for Giuliani (76%), McCain (72%) and Thompson (82%).
Romney’s relative standing is much better among Republican and Republican-leaning voters who do not express reluctance about voting for a Mormon; indeed, among this group, Romney’s favorability rating (81%) is significantly better than McCain’s (71%), while somewhat lower than Giuliani’s (86%) and Thompson’s (90%).
Candidate Traits and Voting Decisions
While 25% of Americans say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon for president, 45% express reluctance about voting for a Muslim and 61% say they would be less likely to support a candidate who does not believe in God.
Far fewer express reservations about voting for an evangelical Christian, a Jew, or a Catholic. Moreover, about as many people say they would be more likely to vote for an evangelical Christian or a Jew as say they would be less likely, and about twice as many people see being a Catholic as an asset as see it as a liability (13% vs. 7%). By comparison, just 5% say they would be more likely to vote for a Mormon, though two-thirds (66%) say it would make no difference in their vote.
The Parties and Religion
The Republican Party continues to be seen as more friendly toward religion than the Democratic Party, though the number who see the Democrats as unfriendly toward religion has declined slightly since 2006. Currently, half of the public (50%) says the Republican Party is friendly toward religion, about the same as it has been since 2003. Roughly a quarter (23%) say the party is neutral toward religion, and just 9% says it is unfriendly toward religion.
By contrast, just three-in-ten (30%) say the Democratic Party is friendly toward religion, up slightly from last year but still 10 points lower than in August 2004, during the last presidential election. Even though most people do not see the party as friendly toward religion, they do not see it as particularly unfriendly either. Just 15% say the party is unfriendly, with 37% saying the party is neutral.
After respondents were asked about the friendliness of each party to religion, they were asked: “In your view, is this a good thing, a bad thing, or doesn’t it matter to you?” Friendliness toward religion is clearly valued as a good thing: half of those who say the Democratic Party is friendly toward religion believe this is a good thing (15% out of the total 30% who saw the party as friendly), and hardly anyone says it is bad. The same pattern holds for the Republican Party (23% of the total 50%). But importantly, neutrality towards religion by either party is not perceived negatively by most Americans.
Although the Democratic Party continues to be seen as less friendly to religion than the Republican Party, fewer people today than in 2005 believe that liberals who are not religious have too much control of the Democratic Party. In the current survey, 37% say this is true; in 2005, 44% felt this way.
The number of people who say secular liberals have too much control over the party has declined within most of the major religious traditions, though a majority of white evangelicals (52%) continues to feel this way. It also is down nine points among independents and 11 points among Democrats themselves. Currently, about a third of independents (34%) and one-quarter of Democrats (23%) say secular liberals have too much control over the party. Notably, though, Republicans today are only slightly less likely than they were two years ago to express this opinion (58% now vs. 60% in 2005).
As was the case two years ago, a small plurality (43%) agrees with the statement that “religious conservatives have too much control over the Republican Party,” while 41% disagree. About half of white mainline Protestants (49%) think religious conservatives have too much sway over the party, but just 27% of white evangelicals feel this way. Fewer white Catholics today express this view than did so in 2005 (41% now vs. 50% in 2005), but the proportion of people who have no religious affiliation agreeing with this has increased by seven points (63% now vs. 56% in 2005).
Religion and Politics
Americans continue to be generally comfortable with a role for religion in politics, though these views are not unanimously held. Most want a president who has strong religious beliefs, and most think it is proper for journalists to ask politicians about their religion. Similarly, only a small minority says that there has been too much expression of religious faith and prayer by political leaders. But the public draws a clear line against the active involvement of churches in election campaigns, with a solid majority (63%) opposing churches endorsing specific candidates.
The vast majority (69%) of Americans agree that it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs. However, there are important political and religious differences in the degree to which Americans agree with this view. Republicans are much more intense in their view that the president should have strong religious beliefs than are Democrats or independents (44% vs. 26% and 23% completely agree, respectively).
Most white evangelical Protestants (54%) and black Protestants (43%) strongly agree that a president should have strong religious beliefs compared to only 21% of white mainline Protestants and 22% of white non-Hispanic Catholics. The religiously unaffiliated are the only group where the majority (62%) disagrees that a president should have strong religious convictions.
While the public wants a president with strong religious beliefs, many people are resistant to too much display of religiosity by politicians. More than four-in-ten (43%) say that it makes them uncomfortable when politicians talk about how religious they are, a number that is little changed since the heat of the presidential campaign in 2004.
However, most people do not currently feel that political leaders are crossing the line. Just 27% in the poll say that there has been too much expression of religious faith and prayer by political leaders. A similar number (26%) says there has been the right amount of religious expression, and nearly four-in-ten (38%) would like to hear more talk about religion from politicians. Only among white evangelicals (57%) and black Protestants (59%) do majorities say they want to hear more expression of faith and prayer from political leaders.
A majority of Americans see nothing improper with journalists asking politicians how their religious beliefs affect their opinions on issues of the day — 58% of those polled say it is proper for them to do so, while 37% say it is improper. Even among religiously unaffiliated individuals, 53% think it is okay. Only among older respondents (those 65 and older) is there an even division of opinion on the question (45% say it’s proper, 45% say it is improper). There has been no change in views on this question over the past four years.
While most Americans accept a role for religion in politics, a sizable majority (63%) opposes churches endorsing candidates during election campaigns. Just 28% say churches should come out in favor of candidates, but that number has grown slightly since 2002 when only 22% held this opinion.
There is majority opposition to churches endorsing candidates among people of all religious traditions, including 68% of white mainline Protestants and white non-Hispanic Catholics, 58% of black Protestants, and 53% of white evangelicals. Even among conservative Republicans, a group that tends to be friendly to religious involvement in politics, 52% oppose churches endorsing candidates.
Issues: Stem Cell Research
After showing consistent increases between 2002 and 2005, the survey finds that support for stem cell research has declined slightly since then, from a peak of 57% in July 2005 to 51% today. Roughly one-third of the public (35%) opposes stem cell research, saying that protecting the potential life of embryos is more important than conducting the research.
The issue of stem cell research continues to divide Americans along political fault lines. Majorities of Democrats (60%) and political independents (55%) say it is more important to conduct stem cell research that might result in new medical cures than it is to avoid destroying the potential life of human embryos, but only 37% of Republicans agree. And nearly twice as many self-identified liberals (69%) and moderates (61%) support stem cell research as conservatives (35%).
The differences between religious groups are also quite large. Solid majorities of the religiously unaffiliated (68%), white mainline Protestants (58%) and white non-Hispanic Catholics (59%) support stem cell research; however, support for stem cell research is much lower (46%) among white non-Hispanic Catholics who attend religious services at least weekly.
A majority (57%) of white evangelical Protestants say that it is more important to avoid destroying potential human life than to conduct stem cell research, a view that is particularly pronounced among white evangelicals who attend church at least weekly (68%). Black Protestants remain split over the issue of stem cell research, with 40% favoring it, 40% opposing it, and 20% undecided.
As in past years there continues to be an important link between the public’s knowledge about the stem cell debate and support for conducting research. Overall, 45% say they have heard a lot about the issue, while 43% have heard a little; just 12% have heard nothing at all. Public awareness of the debate has not changed much in recent years. Among those who say they have heard a lot about the debate fully 62% support conducting research, compared with just a third (33%) of those who have heard nothing at all about the stem-cell debate.
Issues: Gay Marriage
Attitudes toward gay marriage have remained virtually unchanged since July 2006, with 36% of Americans favoring it and 55% expressing opposition to allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. As is the case with other social issues, opinions about this issue are closely linked with partisanship, ideology, and religion. Support for gay marriage is highest among liberal Democrats (71%) and lowest among conservative Republicans (11%), with other ideological and partisan groups falling in between.
Among religious groups, evangelical Protestants overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage, including 81% of white evangelicals and 79% of black evangelicals. A large proportion in both groups — 55% of white evangelicals and 48% of black evangelicals — say they strongly oppose gay marriage. White mainline Protestants and Catholics are more evenly divided on the issue. The religiously unaffiliated are the only group in which a majority (60%) expresses support for gay marriage.
Overall, those who attend church weekly or more are significantly more opposed to gay marriage (73%) than those who attend church less often (43%). These differences extend across a variety of religious groups, including white evangelicals (among whom weekly church attenders are 19 percentage points more opposed to gay marriage compared with less frequent attenders), white mainline Protestants (among whom there is a 14 percentage point gap) and white non-Hispanic Catholics (17-point gap).
Issues: Abortion Opinion Stable
The poll finds that a majority (52%) of Americans express support for legalized abortion in most (35%) or all (17%) cases, while 43% oppose legalized abortion in most (26%) or all (17%) circumstances. These findings are consistent with the results from other surveys over the past few years.
Women are slightly more likely than men (21% to 14%) to say that abortion should be legal in all cases. College graduates are significantly more likely than those without any college education to say abortion should be legal (62% vs. 46%).
Among major political groups, liberal Democrats are by far the most supportive of legalized abortion, with 85% saying it should be legal in all (35%) or most (50%) cases. Majorities of moderate and liberal Republicans (54%), political independents (54%), and moderate and conservative Democrats (58%) also say abortion should be legal. Among conservative Republicans, by contrast, 69% say abortion should be illegal in most (42%) or all (27%) cases.
Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants are most opposed to abortion. Less than a third (31%) believes that it should be legal, while two-thirds believe it should be illegal in most (39%) or all (26%) cases. Majorities in most other major religious groups support legalized abortion, including white Catholics (51%), white mainline Protestants (63%), black Protestants (60%) and the unaffiliated (68%).
Since the Supreme Court upheld the congressional ban on partial birth abortion earlier this year, views of the procedure have remained relatively stable. An overwhelming number of Americans (75%) favor keeping partial birth or late term abortion illegal. Even among those who say abortion should be legal in all cases, almost half (49%) believe that partial birth abortion procedures should be illegal. Overall, only 17% of Americans say that partial birth abortion should be legal.
Issues: Death Penalty
More than six-in-ten Americans (62%) favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder. Opinion about the death penalty has remained fairly steady in recent years, though there is less support now than during the 1990s (78% in 1996).
Support for the death penalty is particularly high among Republicans (80%), while smaller majorities of independents (60%) and Democrats (52%) also support capital punishment in murder cases.
White evangelical Protestants support the death penalty at slightly higher rates than do white mainline Protestants (74% to 68%), while about half (51%) of black Protestants oppose it. Among white non-Hispanic Catholics, 66% support capital punishment, but support is significantly lower among weekly attending white Catholics (55%) than among those who attend church less often (73%).