03 Politics



What Drives and Divides the Left and the Right in the United States


The American Voter

Presidential elections tend to focus disproportionately on polling numbers— who’s ahead, who’s behind, and so on. The 2016 election season was no exception—though, in many ways, it was full of the unexpected. As George Barna, founder of Barna and special analyst for 2016 election polling, said, “Nobody expected 17 candidates to seek the GOP nomination. Nobody expected Donald Trump to be taken seriously by Republican voters, much less to emerge as the man to beat. Nobody expected the last two credible Republican candidates to be those representing the Washington outsiders. Nobody expected a democratic socialist to give Hillary Clinton serious competition. Nobody expected so many evangelicals to back a Republican candidate whose lifestyle has consistently conflicted with their values. Nobody expected the televised debates to draw such record-breaking audiences. And the list goes on.”

Looking beyond the race in the polls, what are the key priorities and motivations among voters and their ballot decisions? How do they change over time? And what was special about this election?

Republican and Democrats - Top 5 Factors

Person or Policy?

Early in April 2015, Barna asked voters how they would be evaluating candidates. At that time, there were 15 candidates running for the Republican nomination and five candidates on the Democratic side. What took precedence was a candidate’s “stand on key issues,” chosen by 71 percent of all voters, followed by “character” (41%). Policy factors were more on voters’ radar than personal factors, such as a candidate’s personality, experience, education, and character.

As the selection of presidential candidates began to narrow and become more differentiated over time, Barna surveyed again. In January 2016, there were 10 Republican candidates and three Democratic candidates left in the running. Barna asked a similar sample of voters who they would most likely support in the election and what their primary reason was for doing so. Interestingly, the top four reasons voters selected were unrelated to policy stances, and all focused primarily on candidate attributes. In aggregate, while policy positions were selected by 39 percent of voters as their most important reason, personal characteristics of the candidate were selected by 49 percent of voters (the rest cited a reason not listed).

This general pattern of prioritizing personal characteristics over policy stances holds true even within party lines. Democrat and Republican voters were both more likely to select a “personal factor” as their most important reason than a “policy factor,” although Republicans did prioritize certain issues slightly more than Democrats.

The top two characteristics chosen by Democrats were “experience/track record” and “cares about people like me,” while Republicans chose “honest/trustworthy” and “leadership.”

This preference shift over time from “policy” to “personal” may be due in part to the fact that voters simply become more familiar with the individual profiles of each candidate as the campaign rolls on, and are thus able to weigh personal factors more accurately. This suggests that while voters may use policy distinctions in order to initially screen or assess a wide field of candidates, their final decision is based more on the personal attributes, not the policy stances, of a candidate.

Another possible reason for this shift from “policy” to “personal” is the disproportionately personality-driven nature of this particular election cycle. Few can deny the way in which Donald Trump’s unique style fundamentally shifted the overall tone of the debates, conventions, and campaign messaging—on both sides. Though Trump has run his campaign on a few key policy promises (building a wall, a temporary ban on Muslims, etc.), his campaign has focused more on his personal suitability to manage the country from the Oval Office. The attacks on his political rivals held a deeply personal note, forcing them to respond in kind and further entrenching the personality-focused rhetoric that prevailed this election cycle.

Barna’s survey in April 2016 also found historic low levels of favorability for the two major-party candidates: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. While favorability ratings do not directly correspond to people’s likelihood of voting for a person, the overwhelmingly negative impressions held of both major candidates reflected the broader discontentment among the voting public, and may hint at why this election saw a disproportionate focus on character and personality. Hillary Clinton received favorable ratings from just 38 percent of the registered voters and unfavorable ratings from 60 percent. Donald Trump fared even worse at the time; just 29 percent were favorable toward him and 69 percent unfavorable.

These shifts suggest, once again, that voter preferences among Americans are not set in stone, but rather can be affected by the candidates in a given election season.

Evangelicals’ Priorities

Beyond differences across party lines, it’s worth highlighting the candidate factors that evangelicals prioritize, given their important role in the election and their unique voting preferences. According to the 2016 survey, evangelicals buck the norm in multiple ways. They hold a candidate’s experience and track record in much lower esteem than the average adult voter (2% versus 11%). Instead, they value a candidate’s character (26% versus 6%) and positions on moral issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, more than the norm (19% versus 5%).

It seems that evangelicals are open to new, even inexperienced, candidates, so long as they feel that the candidate represents and embodies their values and ideologies, particularly when it comes to social issues.

Key Concerns of Voters

When it comes to the key policies and issues, which matter most to voters? Overall, the 2016 survey seems to indicate that the economy is top of mind for voters; moral issues take second place, followed security.

Top Candidate Factors for All Voters

Breaking it down by ethnicity, class, party affiliation, faith, age, and other groups, Barna found that Hispanics were, by far, the most concerned with the economy. Twenty percent of Hispanic voters surveyed selected a candidate’s position on the economy as their most important factor in candidate selection, the highest-ranking factor in total for that group. Within the list of policy factors, independents prioritized a candidate’s position on the economy, and so did Millennials and voters with children under age 18.

Evangelicals are the group that is most sensitive to a candidate’s stance on moral issues (i.e., abortion and gay marriage) There were other groups that listed “moral issues” as their top policy factor, but the percentage difference between “moral issues” and their second most important policy factor was too small (<3%) to be statistically significant.

One-fifth of evangelical voters (19%) chose a candidate’s position on moral issues as the most important factor in their selection of a candidate. As a point of reference, the second most popular policy factor, the economy, was only selected by 5 percent of evangelicals. It’s important to note the survey did not ask what stance the voter took on these issues, just whether it was the most important factor for them in their candidate choice.

Certain issues rise and fall in popularity over time. Candidates’ positions on gun policies have received a boost in attention from Republicans (76% in 2015 compared to 84% in 2016). This bump in priority can be explained by the recent headlines about shootings.

The profile of the American voter is a heterogeneous one. It changes both laterally—across demographic and ideological lines—and over time as the election season progresses. Voters do have core interests and priorities, but they are not entirely static, as voters are responsive to what they are observing in their political and national landscape.
n=978 | April–May, 2015; n= 920 registered voters | April 7–14, 2016


Patriotism in America

If you feel true to the “red, white, and blue,” well, you’re in good company. More than half (52%) of the general American population say “being an American” makes up a lot of their personal identity. The only factor that more adults (62%) strongly identified with was family. It’s clear that patriotism is still a core value in the United States.

However, conflating personal identity with being an American is a factor on which various groups significantly diverge. Religious groups such as practicing Catholics (74%), practicing mainline (71%), practicing Christians (66%), and evangelicals (65%) are more likely to do so, while those with no faith (33%) are less likely. Both the unemployed (57%) and those whose income exceeds $100,000 (56%) also feel proudly American, while the employed (48%) and college graduates (47%) aren’t as prone to identify with their American roots. Among political parties, Republicans are much more likely than average to say being an American is central to their identity (65%), while Democrats (42%), registered Independent voters (41%), and unregistered voters (27%) are less likely than average to do so.

Remarkable differences also appear between generational groups, with a steep drop of almost 50 percentage points between Elders (80%) and Millennials (34%) who feel very defined by their American citizenship. The sharpest immediate decline between one generation and the next occurs between Boomers and GenXers. The generation that came of age during Watergate and the turbulent Vietnam War era still says, on the whole, that being an American makes up a lot of their identity (66%). But their children— the generation of globalization, MTV, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal—are far less inclined to claim it as a significant factor: Only 37 percent of Gen-Xers say being an American makes up a lot of their personal identity.

Being an American

A Divided Nation

A Divided Nation


Another election year has brought to light the deep ideological tensions dividing the nation. The growing gap between liberals and conservatives has come to define the American political landscape, and seems unlikely to change any time soon.

These tensions come to the fore on a number of issues. For example, Barna asked American adults whether they believe immigrants and refugees take jobs from Americans. Their answers demonstrate this stark divide: Seven out of 10 conservatives (70%) either strongly or somewhat agree with this statement compared to only one-quarter of liberals (27%). Another example is race. When asked how they feel about the Black Lives Matter movement, only 12 percent of conservatives say they support their message, compared to half of all liberals (50%). The list of issues in which this divide is evident goes on: healthcare, the environment, abortion, and same-sex marriage.

These kinds of conflicts are not new—we’ve been here before. The disputes over everything from the institution of slavery to the Vietnam War all led to polarization of the American public. But today’s disagreements feel uniquely inflammatory, and there are a number of theories as to why: growing economic inequality, Southern conservative realignment, gerrymandering, a partisan primary process, private campaign financing, and a changing media environment, to name a few. These all play a role in creating a political climate in which polarization flourishes.

One characteristic feature of this election cycle—and a contributing factor to partisanship—has been a divisive political rhetoric that relies on anger and fear to demonize the other side. Voters look across the aisle with suspicion and hostility, seeing the “other” as the enemy. Neither side is innocent of this, but as Christians working to heal and restore a divided nation, we must not fall victim to an “us vs. them” mentality—a false good-evil dichotomy that blinds us not only to our own shortcomings, but to the truth that can be learned from our political rivals.

We must reject the tendency to scapegoat and glorify, naming one side as villain and the other as savior. Instead, we must have the humility to accept that there is no square inch of God’s creation that has been unstained by sin and corruption. How would our political climate change if people were open to learn and to believe that—especially when it comes to politics—there are no easy answers?

American Christians are all fallible—liberal or conservative— but remain instruments of God’s grace in this world. When we grasp this truth and enter the political sphere with humility and grace, challenging destructive and divisive narratives, we may begin to reunite a divided nation.


Defining Life and Death in AmericaDefending Life and Death in America

What do Americans believe about life and death? When asked their opinions on the major topics of abortion, the death penalty, and euthanasia, American adults appear relatively tolerant of death. When it comes to abortion, the majority of adults believe abortion should be either legal in all cases (30%) or legal in most cases (34%). Smaller percentages believe it should either be illegal in most cases (23%) or illegal in all cases (13%). Looking at the death penalty, almost threequarters (73%) of Americans believe it should be allowed. This group is made up of those who believe it should either be allowed only in extreme circumstances (37%) or believe it should be legal in all states (36%). Only 13 percent of adults believe it should be abolished, while an equally small percentage (14%) don’t have an established view on the topic. Finally, when it comes to terminal illness, another significant majority (70%) believe each person should be allowed to end their life through euthanasia. More than two-fifths (41%) believe that “yes, absolutely” someone should be able to make that choice, and another one-third (29%) say “yes, possibly.” Again, small minorities say “no, probably not” (6%) or “no, definitely not” (9%), with only 15 percent being unsure of what they believe.
n=1,097 | April 2016


The Threat of TerrorThe Threat of Terror

Since 9/11, the threat of terrorism has become a major preoccupation in the United States. In light of recent domestic and international events, Barna asked American adults to define terrorism. They are pretty evenly split among “any act of violence against civilians” (31%), “any illegal or threatening act (violent or not) with a political or religious agenda” (30%), and “an act of violence used to intimidate and/or effect political or religious change” (27%). This maps fairly well onto conventional definitions, though it shows a broader propensity to define any major act of violence as “terrorism.” Most Americans believe they are either “not really” (52%) or “not at all likely” (20%) to be a victim of terrorism. However, almost a quarter believe it is “somewhat likely” (23%)—a sense likely spurred by recent global attacks and surrounding media coverage. When asked what they believe is the best solution to the threat of terrorism, the top responses were a mix of national security, immigration, and foreign policy solutions: “greater national security and surveillance/intelligence technologies” (23%), “better foreign policy/better relationship with countries around the world” (19%), and “stricter immigration policies and border control” (18%).


Legal Same-Sex Marriage: How People Feel About It and What’s Next

When the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, reactions were mixed. Then and now, Americans hold widely varying views on the morality, constitutionality, and impact of legal marriage for all, without regard to gender or sexual orientation.

In a nationally representative study conducted after the historic ruling, Barna identified key markers, like age and faith practice, that influence people’s views on this still-contentious issue.

First, practicing faith is a stronger indicator of a person’s views than his or her religious identity. Looking at the variances between practicing and non-practicing Christians, researchers can identify ways in which those who are more personally observant of their faith differ from those who are “legacy” or “cultural” believers. And when it comes to same-sex marriage, practicing Christians—those who say their faith is very important and have attended one or more church services during the past month—differ significantly from those who self-identify as Christian but do not regularly attend church or prioritize their faith. For example, practicing Christians (28%) are less likely than self-identified, non-practicing Christians (43%) to say they favor the Supreme Court ruling.

Second, practicing faith is a stronger indicator of a person’s views than his or her age. In the general U.S. population, age has been and continues to be a defining fault line when it comes to same-sex marriage. Younger practicing Christians, however, have more in common with their older counterparts in the faith than they do with their peers in the general population. One-third of practicing Christians under 40 favor the ruling (35%), compared to six in 10 among all adults in their age cohort (61%)—a gap of 26 percentage points. By comparison, there is only a nine-point gap between younger practicing Christians and those 40 and older (26%).

Many Christians sense divisions within their religious tribe over this issue, and nowhere is the divide more obvious than between practicing and non-practicing Christians under 40. On nearly every question, deep divides emerge between these two groups of younger Christians. While only one-third of practicing Christians under age 40 (35%) are in favor of the Supreme Court’s decision, three-quarters of non-practicing Christians under 40 support the ruling (73%).

Similarly, just one in six young non-practicing Christians say they are not in favor of the legal decision (18%), compared to more than half of practicing Christians under 40 (58%). The two groups’ only agreement is in their shared belief that Christians can support legal marriage for same-sex couples while also affirming the church’s traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman (55% of practicing Christians under 40 vs. 58% of non-practicing Christians under 40).

There has been some speculation that significant numbers of young people have abandoned church involvement because of the Church’s traditional teaching on sexuality, especially related to same-sex relationships. While this study doesn’t confirm such a finding, it certainly shows that inactive Christians are skeptical about the church’s authority on matters of sexuality and sexual orientation.

The cultural fault line between younger practicing Christians and younger lapsed and dechurched Christians is likely to widen in the coming years—particularly as younger churchgoers become a smaller slice of the overall population.

The Impact of Same-Sex Marriage

When Americans consider the impact of same-sex marriage on society, they express varying levels of concern.

More than half of all adults say they are at least somewhat concerned that religious freedom will become more restricted in the next five years (56%), a concern that is more pronounced among adults over 40 (62%) than among younger Americans (45%). Once again, younger practicing Christians (65%) are more closely aligned with their older sisters and brothers in the faith (77%) than with younger non-practicing Christians (35%) in their concerns over religious freedom.

Considering the significant minority of Americans (20%) who say religious institutions and clergy members should be legally required to perform same-sex marriages, concerns about religious liberty protections may be warranted. The percentage is higher among younger non-practicing Christians (31%). Similarly, nearly half of Americans under 40 (44%) and half of young non-practicing Christians (49%) contend that private business owners should legally be made to provide services to same-sex weddings.

The prevalence of these views, even among young practicing Christians (33%), may represent future challenges to the ways people of faith exercise their religious commitments.

Expectations of a Same-Sex Marriage Society

Previous Section


Read Section
Next Section


Read Section