A Closer Look at “Values Voters”

Oct 19, 2007 1:52pm

Today’s “values voters” conference in Washington is putting political attention back on evangelical white Protestants and their role in the Republican presidential contest. Here's a look at the data.

As we’ve reported, given his position on abortion and gay civil unions, Rudy Giuliani’s support for the nomination is considerably weaker among evangelicals as compared with other Republicans. Among non-evangelical Republicans (we're including Republican-leaning independents), Giuliani has nearly triple the support of his closest competitor, Fred Thompson. Among evangelicals, they’re tied.

                             Giuliani  Thompson  McCain  Romney
   white Protestants    23%         22           13          8
All other
   leaned Republicans   38          14           12         12

Note also that Mitt Romney is unappealing to Republican evangelicals, owning apparently to his Mormon religion. Indeed 32 percent of evangelicals say they’d definitely not support Romney, vs. 23 percent who say that of Thompson, John McCain 22, Giuliani 14.

Yes – Republican evangelicals are less likely to flatly rule out Giuliani than any of the other top contenders. But he does have a tough row to hoe: In a poll we did in June, 75 percent of evangelical Republicans (vs. 42 percent of other Republicans) said Giuliani’s support for legal abortion and gay civil unions made them “less likely” to support him. The question is whether they find a preferable alternative.

TERMS – The phrase “values voters” reflects political branding that we should approach with caution. All voters have values. For some those values are expressed as opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and stem-cell research. Others’ values are expressed as support for those same things. For yet others, “values” means hunger, homelessness, poverty or a host of other concerns. No one type of voter possesses “values” to the exclusion of others.

What the phrase really refers to is evangelical white Protestants, a core Republican group whose members, to a degree fairly unique in American society, conflate their religious beliefs and political views. The phrase “conservative Christian” sometimes is used, but it’s inapt; what distinguishes people in this group is not just their conservatism, and not their Christianity, but their evangelicalism.

In terms of the size of the group: Twenty-one percent of voters in the 2004 presidential election were evangelical white Protestants (including other non-Catholic, non-Mormon Christians). Naturally, they account for a greater share of turnout in Republican primaries.

GENERAL ELECTION – While overwhelmingly Republican, evangelical white Protestants are not a monolithic group; 21 percent of them voted for John Kerry in 2004. Nor are they a single-issue or absolutist group. In a general election matchup against Hillary Clinton, Giuliani is supported by 69 percent of evangelical white Protestants; few (five percent) volunteer that they wouldn’t support either.

Giuliani’s current support in this group is somewhat (nine points) short of George W. Bush’s 78 percent in 2004, but still a sizable majority. (Turnout does remain an issue – whether evangelicals would be de-motivated by a Giuliani candidacy and stay home; or anti-motivated by a Clinton candidacy and turn out.)

                             Clinton   Giuliani   Bush ‘04
  white Protestants     26%         69         78%

ISSUES – Republican evangelicals are not vastly different from other Republicans in picking the most important issue in their vote. See the table below, from our early September poll; note that nine percent of evangelical Republicans picked either abortion or an issue relating to values or morality as their top issue, vs. 20 percent who cited the war in Iraq, 12 percent health care, 11 percent terrorism or national security, 10 percent the economy, 10 percent ethics or honesty in government, eight percent immigration.

         Most important issue – among leaned Republicans
                        Evang. white    All
                         Protestants    others
Iraq/War in Iraq         20%          28
Health care                12              8
Terrorism/security     11            12
Economy/jobs            10            14
  corruption               10               8
Immigration                8               7
Morals/family values   5               3
Abortion                     4               0
Education                    2              *
Federal deficit             1              0
Housing/mortgages     1              0
Other                          6              7
No opinion                 10            13

Specifically on abortion, a minority of evangelical Republicans, 36 percent, take the absolute position that it should be illegal in all cases. An additional 46 percent say it should be illegal in “most cases,” for a (very large) net of 82 percent, compared to a net of 50 percent among all other leaned Republicans.

Also relevant here is a result from a poll question we asked in 2004: Fifty-five percent of all evangelical white Protestants said they could vote for a presidential candidate even if they disagreed with him on the abortion issue; 45 percent said they could not.

RELIGIOUS – Ultimately what probably most distinguishes evangelicals is their response to a question we last asked in October 2006: Do you think a political leader should or should not rely on his or her religious beliefs in making policy decisions? Among all Americans, 35 percent said a political leader should rely on his or her religious beliefs; 61 percent, should not.

Among evangelical white Protestants those numbers were almost precisely reversed, 66-33 percent.

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