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New Pew Data Shows Evangelical Support for Carson, Increasing Willingness to Vote for Irreligious Candidates


Data from a new Pew Research Center survey conducted January 7-14, 2016 suggest that while Americans continue to place a high value on the religious beliefs of political candidates, an increasing number of potential voters are OK with candidates seen as less religious. In addition, while being an atheist has always been a political liability in the United States, the share of American adults who say they would be less likely to vote for an atheist candidate has been declining over time. The report also revealed that Ben Carson continues to enjoy a high favorability rating among white, evangelical Republican voters, despite his declining poll numbers.

The Pew survey on Faith and the 2016 Campaign was carried out on landlines and cellphones among a national sample of 2,009 adults. Its results were released today.

The data indicate that particularly among Republicans, for whom religion has historically been a more significant factor when voting than for Democrats, conventional wisdom does not hold; Many Republicans say Donald Trump would be good or great president despite his not being seen as a religious person. He was seen as the least religious of the Republican candidates, and was the most favored candidate among Republican voters by a significant margin.

The survey also showed that fewer voters than ever would be deterred by an atheist presidential candidate. The percent of U.S. adults who would be less likely to vote for an atheist has continually declined since February 2007 (63%) to January 2016 (51%). During that same time, the number of voters who said they would be more likely to vote for an atheist rose from 3% in 2007 to 6% today. The number of people who said it would not matter that a candidate does not believe in God rose from 32% in 2007 to 41% in 2016.

In broad terms, the research on voters’ views concerning political candidates follows similar patterns to the decline in religious adherence among American adults. The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Survey found that U.S. adults are becoming slightly less religiously observant, are increasingly unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition, which was more the case for each subsequent generation.

The Faith and the 2016 Campaign survey results revealed that approximately 50% of white evangelical voters of all political persuasions think that Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz would make a good or great president. Carson scored the highest among white evangelicals: 16% said he would be “great” and 36% said he would make a “good” president (52% total). Trump was second (14%, 38% and 52%, respectively) and Cruz third (12%, 37% and 49%). Among white evangelical Republicans or Republican-leaning voters, 62% thought Ben Carson would make a “good” or “great” president while 63% thought the same of Ted Cruz. 59% of white evangelicals felt Donald Trump would make a good/great president, despite his perceived irreligiosity.

Carson was also seen as the most religious candidate, followed in order by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Donald Trump, as noted, was seen as the least religious candidate in the survey.

Among Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters, those who are religiously unaffiliated have a more favorable view of Bernie Sanders than of Hillary Clinton. 65% said Sanders would be a good/great president, compared with 57% percent for Clinton. Prospective voters who considered Hillary Clinton to be religious tended to like her more. The same was not equally true for Bernie Sanders. Among those who said Clinton would be a good or great president, 69% considered her “very” or “somewhat” religious. For Sanders, only 53% of those who said he would be a good/great president considered him very/somewhat religious. Overall, 65% of Democrats polled considered Clinton to be religious while 53% considered Sanders religious.

The Pew Report found that voters are likely to consider candidates in their own party to be more religious than voters from the opposing party consider those candidates to be. For instance, 80% of Republicans and those who lean Republican considered Ben Carson religious or very religious while only 63% of Democrats or those leaning Democrat felt the same way (Carson was seen as being the most religious candidate when both parties’ views were taken into account). 65% of Democrats and those leaning Democrat viewed Hillary Clinton as somewhat or very religious while only 28% of those with Republican leanings considered Clinton to be religious.

A majority of respondents said they felt that religion is losing its influence in public life in America. This was true in July 2012 (66% felt its influence was decreasing), in September 2014 (72%) and in January 2016 (68%).

Despite a continuing decline in the percentage of people who said they wouldn’t vote for a candidate who doesn’t believe in God, atheism still tops the list of liabilities for a presidential candidate. Voters are less likely to vote for an atheist than a Catholic, a Muslim, a Jew, a past marijuana user, someone who has had extramarital affairs, a gay or lesbian candidate, and someone who has had financial troubles. 51% of respondents said they’d be less likely to vote for someone who doesn’t believe in God; 41% said it wouldn’t matter.

Finally, 64% of Republican-leaning respondents said it is important to them that a political candidate shares their religious beliefs while only 41% of Democratic-leaning respondents felt the same way.

Jared Wright is Managing Editor of

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