Evangelical Christians favor Romney over Obama but have reservations; Virginians assess the role of religion and offer views on Mormonism

Salem, Va. - Evangelical Christians* in Virginia would vote for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama for president (55%-29%) and George Allen over Tim Kaine in the U.S. Senate race (58%-25%), but they are no more enthusiastic about Romney than non-Evangelicals, according to The Roanoke College Poll.  The Roanoke College Poll interviewed 412 Virginia Evangelicals and 251 non-Evangelical residents between March 26 and April 9.

Religion plays a prominent role in the thinking of Evangelicals, but they are more focused on economic issues than on social issues.  Regarding views of the Mormon religion, Evangelicals are generally similar to non-Evangelicals, though there are some differences.

Romney supporters not enthusiastic

While the differences in candidate preferences among Evangelicals (EC) and non-Evangelicals (non-EC) are stark (EC prefer Romney to Obama 55%-29%; non-EC prefer Obama to Romney 51%-37%), both groups are relatively equal in terms of their level of support for each candidate.  There are few differences between the groups in terms of being certain about their vote for Romney (71% EC; 72% non-EC), not being enthusiastic about voting for Romney (18% EC; 29% non-EC), contributing money to the campaign (17% EC; 21% non-EC), volunteering (18% EC; 23% non-EC), talking to others about voting for Romney (47% EC; 41% non-EC), and placing a yard sign or bumper sticker (31% EC; 22% non-EC).  Obama supporters in both religious groups score significantly higher in all those categories. 

About one-third (37% EC; 31% non-EC) of those who are not certain they will vote for their preferred candidate say it is possible they won't vote, and more than half of those who say they may not vote (52% EC; 54% non-EC) say they would be more likely to vote if the Republicans nominated someone other than Romney.

Evangelicals pessimistic about the country and Obama

While Evangelicals view the direction of Virginia similarly to others (right track:43% EC; 38% non-EC), they are somewhat more pessimistic about the direction of the country (wrong track: 79% EC; 66% non-EC), economic conditions a year from now (worse: 31% EC; 18% non-EC) and approval of President Obama (28% EC; 46% non-EC).  Governor Bob McDonnell's approval rating is higher (63% EC; 47% non-EC), while few respondents in either group approve of Congress (11% EC; 5% non-EC).

Poll results indicate that Virginia residents are split regarding who better understands the needs of people like them.  Evangelicals are more likely to think that Romney does (45% very well or fairly well compared to 37% of non-EC), while the non-Evangelicals give the edge to Obama (63% non-EC say very well or fairly well compared to 39% of EC). 

In terms of general impressions, Evangelicals prefer McDonnell (52% favorable), followed by Allen (49%), Kaine (33%), Romney (31%) and Obama (29%).  For non-Evangelicals, the ranking is Obama (51% favorable), Kaine (43%), McDonnell (36%), Allen (24%) and Romney (23%). 

The importance of religion in the campaign

The greatest differences between Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals are found, not surprisingly, in their religious beliefs and their views on the importance of religion in presidential politics.  Differences in religious beliefs can easily be seen in the poll frequencies.

While there is no difference in the percentage of the two groups registered to vote or their interest in the campaign, their views of the president and the role of religion in politics differ markedly.  Evangelicals are somewhat more likely to see the president as a moral and religious leader (71% vs. 61% of non-EC).  More than half of Evangelicals say it is very important that a candidate has strong religious beliefs (55% vs. 14% of non-EC), and they say they are less likely to vote for a candidate whose beliefs are very different from theirs (35% vs. 12% of non-EC). 

Evangelicals were less likely to know that Obama is a Protestant (27% vs. 42% of non-EC), but not significantly more likely to think he is a Muslim (16% vs. 11% of non-EC).  They were, however, more likely to say that Obama's religion makes them less likely to vote for him (23% vs. 6% of non-EC).  The large majority of both groups who said that Obama's religion makes them less likely to vote for him think he is Muslim.

Evangelicals were slightly less likely to identify Romney as a Mormon (60% vs. 70%), but they were no more likely to say that Romney's religion makes them less likely to vote for him (13% vs. 9% on non-EC).

Views on Mormonism

About half of the respondents (45% of EC; 38% of non-EC) say they know nothing or not very much about the Mormon religion.  Based on what they have read or heard, Evangelicals are more likely to think that Mormons are not Christians (37% vs. 16% of non-EC) and think that the Mormon religion is very different from their faith (74% vs. 61% of non-EC).  When asked to offer a word or two to describe the Mormon religion, there were no significant differences in the responses of Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals.  (Note: this was asked as an open-ended question with no possible responses offered).  The most common words were: family or family values (9% EC; 9% non-ED), different/strange/odd/weird/unusual (6% EC; 11% non-EC), cult (9% EC; 5% non-EC), strict/restrictive (5% EC; 8% non-EC), polygamy/bigamy/multiple wives (6% EC; 6% non-EC), and good/good people (6% EC; 4% non-EC).

Important Issues

Virginians remain focused on the economy regardless of their religious affiliation.  When asked the most important problem facing the country today, the top four  issues were the economy in general (32% EC; 36% non-EC), unemployment (17% EC; 20% non-EC), the budget deficit (8% EC; 6% non-EC), and gas prices (7% EC; 5% non-EC).  A statistically insignificant difference can be found in the percentage of respondents identifying morality or the absence of God from public life as the most important issue (7% EC; 1% non-EC).  Evangelicals are more likely to disapprove of the individual mandate portion of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act (66% vs. 50% of non-EC), and they are more likely to support the Tea Party movement (53% EC; 29% non-EC). 

Demographic data

Evangelicals are generally older than their non-Evangelical counterparts.  They are also more likely to be female, less likely to have a college degree or to have an annual family income greater than $100,000.  They are slightly more likely to be African-American and less likely to live in Northern Virginia or Tidewater.  In terms of their political beliefs, they are much more likely to be Conservative (58% EC; 23% non-EC) and to be Republican (43% EC; 26% non-EC), although 23 percent of Evangelicals identify themselves as Democrats.

Analysis

"Evangelical Christians differ from non-Evangelicals regarding the importance of religion in the political arena, but the issues of greatest importance to both groups are economic," said Dr. Harry Wilson, director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College. 

"While pluralities of both groups do not know the religious affiliation of the presidential candidates, more can identify Romney as a Mormon.  About one-sixth of Virginians still identify President Obama as a Muslim," said Wilson.  "Pluralities of both Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals admit they know little about Mormonism. Their impressions are clearly mixed.  At this point, it is not clear how or if religion benefits or hurts either candidate in Virginia."

"It is clear, however, that Evangelicals prefer Mitt Romney and George Allen, and they do not see Barack Obama in a favorable light.  That said they are not enthusiastic in their support of Romney.  And, like every other group, they are not monolithic."

*Evangelicals were identified in one of three ways.  1) Respondent self-identified as Evangelical; 2) Respondent answered "agree" to a) The Bible is the word of God," b)  "Christians should share their faith in Jesus with others who might not already believe,"  and c) "Salvation only comes through Jesus and not through the practice of other religions;" 3) Respondent answered agree to two items from criterion 2 and answered yes to at least two of the following descriptors of their beliefs: a) born-again; b) Bible-believing; c) Evangelical; d) Fundamentalist.

METHODOLOGY

Interviewing for The Roanoke College Poll was conducted by The Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., between March 26 and April 9, 2012.  A total of 412 Evangelical Christians in Virginia were interviewed.  After we completed the interviews for the survey referenced in our April 10 release, we continued to interview, screening for Evangelicals.   The sample of land lines and cell phones was prepared by Survey Sampling Inc. of Fairfield, Conn., and was created so that all cell phone and residential telephone numbers, including unlisted numbers, had a known chance of inclusion.  Cell phones constituted 20 percent of the completed interviews.

Questions answered by the entire sample of 412 residents are subject to a sampling error of plus or minus approximately 5 percent at the 95 percent level of confidence.  This means that in 95 out of 100 samples like the one used here, the results obtained should be no more than 5 percentage points above or below the figure that would be obtained by interviewing all Virginia residents who have a home telephone or a cell phone.  Where the results of subgroups are reported, the sampling error is higher.  Because the demographic breakdown of Evangelical Christians is not known, the results were not statistically weighted.  Responses of non-Evangelicals referenced in this release are also not weighted.

A copy of the questionnaire and all frequencies may be found here.

Released: April 17, 2012
Contact Name: Dr. Harry Wilson
Contact Phone: (540) 375-2415 (office), (540) 992-1333 (home), (540) 293-4206 (cell)
Contact Email: wilson@roanoke.edu