January 27, 2016

Faith and the 2016 Campaign

2. Religion and other candidate traits

Candidate traits: assets and liabilities

Views of presidential traits: military experience seen most positively, not believing in God most negativelyThe survey asked about a series of hypothetical traits of presidential candidates and whether each would make one more or less likely to support a candidate. The most positive trait among those asked about was having served in the military: Half of Americans say they would be more likely to support a candidate with military experience, while very few (4%) would be less likely to support a military veteran; 45% say it wouldn’t matter one way or the other. Being Catholic and having attended a prestigious university, such as Harvard or Yale, are other traits that are seen as more positive than negative among U.S. adults.

At the other end of the spectrum, half of Americans (51%) say they would be less likely to support a candidate who does not believe in God. Other examples of traits that are seen as more negative than positive are being Muslim, having had an extramarital affair in the past and having had personal financial troubles.

Impact of candidates’ religion on potential support

Being an atheist remains one of the biggest potential liabilities a presidential candidate could have. But a lack of belief in God is less of a liability today than it was in the recent past. As recently as 2007, 61% of Americans said they would be less likely to vote for an atheist presidential candidate, while just 3% said they would be more likely to vote for a nonbeliever. Today, the number of people saying they would be less likely to support an atheist has declined to 51%, while 6% say they would be more likely to vote for a nonbelieving presidential candidate. The ratio of negative to positive feelings toward an atheist presidential candidate now stands at about nine-to-one, compared with about twenty-to-one just a few years ago.

Being an atheist still a liability for politicians, but acceptance is increasing

The decreased negativity toward atheists is seen among both parties, but it is especially pronounced among Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party. About four-in-ten Democrats (41%) now say they would be less likely to support an atheist presidential candidate, down from 55% in 2007. Most Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party (65%) still say they would be less likely to support an atheist for president, though the share who say they would be turned off by a nonbelieving candidate has declined slightly from 70% in 2007.

Protestants’ views toward atheist candidates have not changed very much in recent years. Catholics, however, are now slightly more accepting of atheist candidates than in 2007. Similarly, religious “nones” – who have long been most accepting of atheist presidential candidates – have also become more accepting of nonbelieving candidates over time. In addition, religious “nones” have grown significantly as a share of the U.S. population since 2007, which could help account for the growing acceptance of atheist candidates seen among the public as a whole.

Four-in-ten Americans say they would be less likely to support a candidate for president who is Muslim (42%), though the share saying this has shrunk slightly since the question was first asked in 2007 (46%). Republicans and white evangelical Protestants hold particularly negative views of potential Muslim candidates. Roughly six-in-ten or more in each group say they would be less likely to support a Muslim candidate (62% and 65%, respectively).

Many Catholics, white evangelicals say they would be more likely to support a candidate who shares their faith

Being Mormon is also seen more negatively than positively by U.S. adults, with roughly a quarter (23%) saying they would be less likely to support a Mormon candidate and only 5% saying this would make a candidate more desirable. Evangelicals stand out from other religious groups for their comparatively high levels of wariness toward Mormon presidential candidates, though the vast majority of evangelical voters supported Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.

Catholic candidates are seen more positively than negatively by the American public, with 16% saying they would be more likely to support a Catholic candidate and 8% saying they would be less likely. Catholics, in particular, express support for hypothetical candidates who share their religion; 39% of Catholics say they would be more likely to vote for a Catholic presidential candidate, while just 1% say they would be less likely to do this.

The balance of opinion on Jewish and evangelical candidates is more evenly divided, with roughly equal shares saying they would be more likely to support each kind of candidate as saying they would be less likely.

Large numbers of white evangelicals and black Protestants (most of whom identify themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians) say they would be more likely to support an evangelical presidential candidate. Religious “nones,” by contrast, display the greatest wariness toward evangelical candidates; 35% say they would be less likely to support an evangelical and just 4% say they would be more likely to vote for an evangelical Christian for president.

Impact of candidates’ personal life on potential support

Acceptance of gay and lesbian candidates has grown rapidly in recent years, reflecting increased acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage more broadly. As recently as 2007, nearly half of Americans (46%) said they would be less likely to support gay or lesbian presidential candidates. Today, one-quarter of Americans say they would be less likely to support a gay or lesbian presidential candidate (26%), while 4% say they would be more likely to support a candidate who is gay or lesbian. About seven-in-ten now say a candidate’s sexual orientation would not influence their vote.

Nearly seven-in-ten now say a candidate's sexual orientation would make no difference in their voting decision

Increased acceptance of homosexual candidates is broad-based, having occurred among both Republicans and Democrats and within every major religious group. For example, in 2007, about six-in-ten Republicans (62%) said they would be less likely to support a gay or lesbian presidential candidate. Today, just 38% of Republicans express that view, a decline of 24 percentage points. Nearly six-in-ten Republicans (59%) now say a candidate’s sexual orientation makes no difference to them.
Similarly, while white evangelical Protestants remain more wary than those in other religious groups of gay and lesbian candidates, they have grown more accepting over time. Today, roughly half of white evangelicals (54%) say they would be less likely to vote for a gay or lesbian presidential candidate, down from 71% in 2007.

White evangelicals particularly negative toward candidates who had affairsMore white evangelical Protestants and Catholics see past marijuana use as a negative than a positive. White mainline Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated, by comparison, are more ambivalent on the issue. Roughly eight-in-ten in each group say this wouldn’t affect their support for a candidate one way or the other, while the remainder are roughly evenly divided between those saying they would be less likely and those saying they would be more likely to support a candidate who has used marijuana.

Roughly half of white evangelical Protestants (56%) would be less likely to support a candidate who has had an extramarital affair in the past, compared with roughly four-in-ten Catholics (41%) and white mainline Protestants (38%) and a quarter of religiously unaffiliated adults (26%). The survey also finds that Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP are more wary than Democrats about candidates who have infidelity in their past.

Impact of candidates’ professional and educational experience on potential support

Protestants see military experience as a positive, Washington experience as a negativeHalf of U.S. adults say they would be more likely to support a candidate who has served in the military, and 45% say this wouldn’t matter one way or another. Protestants are particularly likely to say that having served in the military would make them more likely to support a candidate for president, with roughly six-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (64%) and white mainline Protestants (60%) holding this view. The survey also shows that military service is a bigger selling point among Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP than among Democrats.

Among the public as a whole, more see having attended a prestigious university as a positive (20%) than a negative (6%), but a majority (74%) say it wouldn’t matter to them. Compared with other religious groups, fewer white evangelical Protestants say they would be more likely to support a candidate who attended a prestigious university, but majorities in all major religious groups say this characteristic would not matter to them.

Americans as a whole see having been an elected official in Washington as more of a negative (31%) than a positive (22%). This is especially true for white evangelical Protestants and white mainline Protestants. Catholics are more divided on this question. Half of Catholics (49%) say it wouldn’t matter to them if a candidate has served as an elected official in Washington for many years, while a quarter say this would make them more likely to support a candidate; about as many Catholics (26%) say it would make them less likely to offer their support.

By more than a two-to-one margin, Republicans say they would be less likely to support a candidate with a lot of Washington experience than say they would be more likely to support a Washington insider. Democrats are more evenly divided; 27% say they would be more likely to support a candidate with a lot of Washington experience, while 19% say they would be less inclined to support such a candidate.