Interview

The Election By the Numbers: An Interview with Robert P. Jones

By | November 5, 2012

(Courtesy of Public Religion Research Institute)

Robert P. Jones is the founding CEO of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization that works at the intersection of religion, values, and public life. Jones notably works across disciplinary divides, bridging the gap between sociology and political science. Having studied religious ethics and the sociology of religion, his work over the last decade has focused more on quantitative research. He served for six years on the national steering committee for the Religion and Politics Section at the American Academy of Religion, and he currently sit on the editorial board at Politics and Religion, a journal of the American Political Science Association.

Before founding PRRI, Jones worked as a consultant and senior research fellow at several think tanks in Washington, DC, and was assistant professor of religious studies at Missouri State University. He writes a weekly “Figuring Faith” column at the Washington Post’s On Faith section, and is a frequent guest on national media outlets, including CNN, NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, TIME, and others. He is the author of Progressive & Religious: How Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist Leaders are Moving Beyond the Culture Wars and Transforming American Public Life; Liberalism’s Troubled Search for Equality; and numerous peer-review articles on religion and public policy.

Just before the general election, R&P caught up with Jones over email about what he will be watching for in the data. –T.S.

R&P: In terms of numbers, what will you be watching closely for on Election Day and in the subsequent exit poll data?

RJ: As the race between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney comes down to the wire, each candidate’s path to success, including in key states like Ohio, is impacted by the religious composition of the electorate in ways that are often overlooked. Especially important to watch are Catholic voters, white-working class Americans, Millennials, and the religiously unaffiliated.

R&P: Your organization’s research has shown that the economy is by far the most important issue for registered voters this election year. After the economy, what are the most pressing concerns for voters?

RJ: After the economy, the most important thing is, well, the economy. In PRRI’s pre-election American Values Survey, when given the option of six issues, more than six-in-ten likely voters say the economy is the most important issue influencing their vote. Nearly one-in-five say health care, another domestic issue that is an economic issue, is the most important issue influencing their vote. All other issues, including the social issues we hear so much about, were in single digits. Only 4 percent of likely voters cite abortion and only 1 percent of likely voters cite same-sex marriage as the most important issues influencing their vote.

R&P: Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have religious coalitions of supporters, but ones that you and your team describe in the newly released American Values Survey as “starkly different.” Can you illuminate those differences?

RJ: One of the most striking findings of the American Values Survey was the contrasting makeup of the two candidates’ religious voting coalitions. Approximately three-quarters of Mitt Romney’s supporters are white Christians, including nearly 4-in-10 who are white evangelical Protestant Christians. By contrast, Barack Obama’s voting coalition is much more diverse. Only about 4-in-10 of Barack Obama’s supporters are white Christians. The remainder of Obama’s voting coalition is anchored by two very different groups: about 1-in-5 are black Protestants, and nearly one-quarter are religiously unaffiliated Americans. Understanding these differences helps cast light on the different challenges each candidate has in addressing their base supporters while simultaneously addressing the general electorate.

R&P: In your data, nearly half of Americans or more believe both Romney and Obama have religious beliefs that are different from their own. How does the party affiliation and religion of the individual influence this perception?

RJ: These perceptions are driven by very different factors. In Romney’s case, his Mormon faith has presented something of a challenge in connecting primarily with the large block of white evangelical Protestant voters in his party’s base. White evangelical Protestants are the group most likely to say that Mormonism is not a Christian religion, and they are the only major religious constituency in which a majority say they want a presidential candidate who shares their religious beliefs. However, our most recent polling also shows that more than 7-in-10 white evangelical Protestant likely voters are supporting Romney. So it seems that evangelicals are largely willing to set these theological differences aside. We’ll see on Election Day whether these reservations translate into lower enthusiasm and turnout or not.

In Obama’s case, these attitudes are driven by a combination of race, the controversy during his first election campaign with his former pastor, and persistent false rumors that he is Muslim rather than Christian. The good news for Obama is that for most of his supporters, and for political independents, a candidate’s particular religion is not a high-ranking electoral concern.

R&P: How do registered voters view same-sex marriage in the lead-up to this election? Are there notable differences among religious groups?

RJ: As I noted before, only 1-in-100 likely voters, including only 1 percent of Republican likely voters, say same-sex marriage is the most important issue influencing their vote. But it’s a remarkable issue to observe; I’m not aware of any other major national policy issue where opinions have shifted so dramatically. Just six years ago, only about 4-in-10 Americans supported same-sex marriage, and the issue was framed as a conflict between non-religious supporters and religious opponents. Over the last year, polls consistently now find pluralities or slim majorities of Americans supporting same-sex marriage, and this year, Washington state or Maryland could become the first states to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. And today, there are major religious groups on both sides of the debate. Along with the religiously unaffiliated, majorities of Jews, white mainline Protestants, and Catholics support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. On the other side, majorities of black Protestants and white evangelical Protestants oppose same-sex marriage.

R&P: Catholic voters have received a lot of media attention this election cycle, even here at R&P. Is there such a thing as “the Catholic vote”?

RJ: Despite much hype, there is no such thing as “the Catholic vote.” And in a number of key states—Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to name a few—which Catholics turn up to vote may decide the election. There are at least two important groups, each of which leans in a distinctive electoral direction. Over the last two decades, Hispanic Catholics have been growing much more quickly than white Catholics, and currently make up about one-third of all Catholics. A number of polls, including our own, show that about 7-in-10 Hispanic Catholics support Obama, while 54 percent of white Catholics are supporting Romney. The other important divide we discovered in the American Values Survey was a divide that is also embodied in the two Catholic vice-presidential candidates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden. We found a divide in candidate preference between the 63 percent of Catholic likely voters who say that in the church’s public policy pronouncements, they would prefer an emphasis on social justice and the obligation to help the poor, even if it meant less emphasis on the right to life and abortion, and the 28 percent of Catholic likely voters who say the opposite. Among the Catholic voters favoring a more social justice emphasis in church public engagement, 6-in-10 are supporting Obama. Among Catholic voters favoring more of a right to life emphasis in church public engagement, two-thirds are supporting Romney.

R&P: This year, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops has been vocal in promoting the church’s stance on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, as well as criticizing the Obama administration’s HHS mandate which dictates that religiously affiliated institutions provide employees with contraception coverage in their healthcare plans. Do the bishops’ campaigns seem to be affecting the views of Catholics on these issues? What do Americans as a whole think about the HHS mandate?

RJ: PRRI polled on this issue back in March when the controversy first erupted and again more recently in September. We find no evidence that the Catholic bishops’ campaign has moved rank-and-file Catholic opinion on this issue. In both March and September, solid majorities of Catholics overall supported requiring religiously affiliated hospitals and colleges to provide employees with no-cost contraception coverage in their health insurance plans. One caveat is that white Catholics, who tend to be older and more likely to identify as Republican, are divided on the issue.

R&P: As your new survey notes, the religiously unaffiliated are now “the fastest growing group in the American religious landscape,” with 19 percent of Americans now identifying as such. Who counts as religiously unaffiliated and what political implications, if any, does this group have, now and for the future?

RJ: This is an increasingly important group in America, especially for understanding younger Americans. Nearly one-third of Millennials (ages 18-29) are religiously unaffiliated, compared to only one-in-ten seniors (ages 65 and older). Religiously unaffiliated Americans are comprised of three discrete subgroups, which have distinct religious and demographic profiles:

- “Unattached believers” (23 percent): describe themselves as religious despite having no formal religious identity, and are more likely than the general population to be black or Hispanic and to have lower levels of educational attainment;

- “Seculars” (39 percent): describe themselves as secular or not religious, and roughly mirror the general population in terms of racial composition and levels of educational attainment;

- “Atheists and agnostics” (36 percent): identify as atheist or agnostic, and are more likely than the general population to be non-Hispanic white and to have significantly higher levels of educational attainment.

R&P: PRRI has studied the shifts currently underway in the religious make-up of the United States. Who are the winners and losers in this shifting religious marketplace?

RJ: The American religious marketplace is a surprisingly dynamic place. More than one-third of Americans currently have a religious affiliation that is different from the one in which they were raised. The fastest growing group in the American religious landscape, as noted above, is the religiously unaffiliated. While 19 percent of Americans identify as religiously unaffiliated today, only 7 percent of Americans report that they were raised religiously unaffiliated, a net increase of 12 percentage points. At the other end of the spectrum, although nearly one-third (31 percent) of Americans report that they were raised Catholic, only 22 percent currently identify that way, a net loss of nine percentage points. Notably, 12 percent of Americans today are former Catholics.

R&P: Last month, PRRI released a survey called “Beyond Guns and God: Understanding the Complexities of the White Working Class in America.” Its title references Obama’s remark in 2008 that these voters “cling to guns or religion,” and the data speaks against the stereotypes of the white working class. One frequent assumption is that these voters go against their economic interests in favor of values issues. Is this accurate? Why or why not?

RJ: It’s always problematic when scholars or pundits purport to know “the interests” of any group of Americans. Culture and values, as Max Weber noted more than a century ago, can play a decisive directing role as people make decisions about voting and other actions. But on the narrower point about economic interests, we certainly found evidence that working-class Americans are making the connection between government programs that help the poor and support for candidates who have said they would cut these programs. For example, white working-class Americans who have received food stamps within the last two years were significantly less likely to support Romney, whose economic plan would reduce funding for government programs like food stamps. Half (50 percent) of white working-class voters who have not reported using food stamps in the past two years supported Romney, while less than one-third (32 percent) supported Obama. By contrast, white working-class voters who reported receiving food stamps in the last two years preferred Obama to Romney by a significant margin (48 percent v. 36 percent).

R&P: How do white, Southern, working-class voters stand out from the majority of white working-class voters you surveyed?

RJ: Southern white-working class Americans stand out from white working-class Americans in the Northeast, Midwest, and West on a number of cultural attitudes and attributes, as well as on voting preferences. White working-class Americans in the South (62 percent) are more likely than white working-class Americans in the West (50 percent), Midwest (48 percent), or Northeast (38 percent) to live in households with firearms. There is much greater opposition to same-sex marriage among white working-class Americans in the South than among white working-class Americans in other regions. Less than one-third (32 percent) of white working-class Americans in the South favor allowing gay and lesbian people to marry, compared to 44 percent in the Midwest, 47 percent in the West, and 57 percent in Northeast.

White working-class voters’ support for Mitt Romney or Barack Obama varied greatly by region. Among white working-class voters in the South, Romney held a commanding 40-point lead over Obama (62 percent v. 22 percent). However, neither candidate held a statistically significant lead among white working-class voters in the West (46 percent Romney v. 41 percent Obama), Northeast (42 percent Romney v. 38 percent Obama), and Midwest (36 percent Romney v. 44 percent Obama).

R&P: There seems to be a dearth of social science research on the intersection of religion and politics, though there are a few places, including PRRI, that deliver such data. Do you agree with this assessment and, if so, why do you think this is the case?

RJ: We at PRRI are happy to be an organization dedicated to helping journalists, opinion leaders, scholars, clergy, and the general public better understand debates on public policy issues and the role of religion in American public life by conducting high quality public opinion surveys and qualitative research. There is no dearth of polls out there, as has been evident this election season, but one of the main reasons PRRI was founded is that there were few sources of high-quality, publicly available social science research that focused on religion and politics. This year, we have surveyed over 30,000 Americans in 14 different surveys. We make the detailed findings publicly available on our website as soon as they are released, and all of our complete datasets are available for secondary research (after an embargo period) by scholars at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut and the Association of Religious Data Archives at Pennsylvania State University.

R&P: If you could make sure readers take away three key data points from your work this year in relation to religion and politics, what would they be?

RJ: First, even in an election dominated by the economy, where religion is not playing a leading role, religion is still an important supporting actor. Religious beliefs and values impact how Americans approach economic issues and budget priorities.

Second, the major religious and cultural groups in the country are more complex than is often assumed, and frequently defy stereotypes. For example, there is no “Catholic vote,” and white working-class Americans in the Midwest, in places like Ohio, have significantly different priorities and concerns than white working-class Americans in the South. Jews, like most Americans, say the most important thing for their vote this year is the economy; only 6 percent say that Israel is the most important issue for their vote.

Third, there is significant churn in the American religious landscape, driven by generational change, significant levels of religious switching, and immigration patterns. This churn is already reshaping the way we understand not only American religion, but also the way in which religion influences American politics.

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