August 21, 2008

More Americans Question Religion’s Role In Politics

Section 3: Issues and the 2008 Election

Top Issues for 2008

The economy continues to lead the list of issues voters say will be very important to their candidate choice this fall. Fully 87% of voters say the economy will be very important to their vote this fall, which is virtually unchanged since May (88%) but greater than the proportion of voters citing the economy as very important in October 2004 (78%). And while terrorism, Iraq and other issues rivaled the economy in importance four years ago, the economy rates 10 points higher than any other issue this year.

Energy ranks second, with 77% saying this issue will be very important. That represents a substantial increase of 23 percentage points from October 2004. Four other issues cluster just below, with 72%-73% mentioning health care, education, the war in Iraq and terrorism. The number citing terrorism as very important has declined five points since October 2004. Majorities also mention moral values (61% very important), the environment (59%) and immigration (52%). About half (49%) say trade policy will be very important.

Two social issues are at the bottom of the list in terms of perceived importance to voters: abortion was mentioned by 39% as very important, down eight points from October 2004, while gay marriage is mentioned by 28%, compared with 32% during the closing weeks of the 2004 campaign.

Voters who are strongly opposed to abortion and gay marriage are much more likely than other voters to say that these are very important voting issues. More than half of those who are strongly opposed to gay marriage say that it is very important (54% vs. 28% overall). Among the 13% of voters who say abortion should never be permitted, more than three-quarters (78%) say it will be a very important issue in their vote this fall.

Dueling Issue Agendas

As in 2004, there are substantial differences between supporters of the two major candidates in how they prioritize the issues. Voters who say they are certain they will vote for McCain are far more likely than those who are certain they will vote for Obamato rate terrorism as a very important issue: 83% of committed McCain voters say this, compared with 64% of committed Obama voters and 70% of swing voters. In October 2004, 88% of committed Bush voters said terrorism was very important, a higher percentage than for any other issue. And as with committed Bush supporters, significantly more committed McCain voters than his opponent’s supporters say moral values will be very important to their vote.

By contrast, more Obama voters than McCain voters mention health care and education as very important. The economy ranks high among all voters, but slightly more Obama supporters and swing voters (92% and 88%, respectively) than McCain voters (81%) view the economy as very important. Abortion is somewhat more important for McCain voters than for others. Gay marriage trails all issues among the committed voters for both candidates (and for swing voters as well), although more McCain voters than Obama supporters view it as very important (38% vs. 22%).

Religion and Issue Priorities

For the most part, the issues that are important to the public as a whole are also important to particular religious groups. But there are some notable differences. Two groups of voters defined by their religious identity are of particular interest in the election this year: white evangelical Protestants, at approximately 23% of all voters, and white non-Hispanic Catholics (18%). White evangelicals have been among the most dependably Republican groups in the population, while Catholics have become a strongly contested swing voter group.

Social issues, and especially the question of moral values, are more important for white evangelicals than for other voters: 77% say moral values will be very important to their vote, and 54% say this about abortion. Slightly fewer (46%) say gay marriage will be very important. The percentage of white evangelicals citing these issues as very important in October 2004 was similar: 81% for moral values, 61% for abortion and 49% for gay marriage.

More religiously observant white evangelicals are more likely to stress social issues than those who are less observant. Among white evangelicals who attend church at least weekly, moral values rate at the top of the issues agenda, along with the economy and terrorism; 85% cite moral values as very important, compared with 83% who mention the economy and 82% terrorism. White evangelical voters who attend church less frequently are far less likely to cite moral values as very important (62%).

More-observant evangelical voters cite abortion and gay marriage far more often than do other religious groups: 64% say abortion will be a very important issue and 56% cite gay marriage. White evangelicals who do not attend church as frequently are much less concerned about these issues: just 35% cite abortion and 27% say gay marriage will be very important.

The issue of moral values and abortion also are more important for white non-Hispanic Catholic voters who attend Mass regularly than for white Catholics who attend less frequently. Among white Catholics who attend church regularly, 71% say moral values will be very important, compared with 53% among those who attend less frequently. Abortion is cited as very important by 47% of regular churchgoing white Catholics and by only 23% of the less observant.

Issue Priorities Among Younger and Older Voters

The focus on young voters this year has raised the question of whether this voting group has different priorities than other voters. In fact, there are relatively few age differences in the importance assigned to various issues. Only one issue, education, stands out as more important for voters younger than 30 than for their older counterparts. The economy ranks first among issues for all age groups. Similarly, all age groups place gay marriage at the bottom of the list in importance, and abortion also ranks low among all age groups.

There is a sizable gender gap regarding the importance of most issues, including the environment, health care, education and moral values. Nearly two-thirds of women voters (65%) say the environment will be very important to their vote compared with only about half of men (51%). The differences are nearly as large over other domestic issues, such as health care (11 points) and education (10 points), as well as over moral values (10 points) and abortion (9 points).

More women than men also view terrorism and Iraq as very important. Views about the importance of other issues, including the economy and energy, do not significantly differ by gender.

Views on Issues: Government-Funded Health Insurance

A government guarantee of universal health insurance, even if it means raising taxes, continues to attract broad support. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) favor such a proposal, while 34% are opposed. Public support for government-backed health insurance was somewhat greater at a comparable stage in the 2004 campaign; in early September of that year, 66% supported this proposal, while 26% were opposed.

Democrats continue to be the most supportive of government-guaranteed health insurance – 79% of Democrats, including 85% of liberal Democrats, favor it. A majority of independents (63%) and moderate and liberal Republicans (54%) also say the government should guarantee health insurance for all, even if it means raising taxes. Conservative Republicans disagree; 59% of conservative Republicans oppose government-backed insurance and just 38% favor it.

Among religious groups, about half of white evangelicals (53%) favor the government guaranteeing health insurance for all. Considerably larger majorities of black Protestants (66%) and Catholics (67%) – including 78% of Hispanic Catholics – favor government-funded health insurance, as do 68% of the religiously unaffiliated.

Same-Sex Marriage

About half of Americans (52%) oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, which is little changed from measures in June (52%) and late May (49%) of this year. But there is somewhat less opposition to same-sex marriage currently than at this stage in the campaign four years ago; in August 2004, 60% opposed allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, while just 29% favored that idea (compared with 39% currently).

Compared with four years ago, support for same-sex marriage has increased among Democrats. In August 2004, half of Democrats opposed allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, while 38% favored it. Today, 51% favor same-sex marriage and 42% oppose it.

White evangelical Protestants and Republicans – especially conservative Republicans – continue to be overwhelmingly opposed to same-sex marriage. About seven-in-ten Republicans (72%) – including 78% of conservative Republicans – oppose same-sex marriage. Three-quarters of white evangelicals oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally.

There is less opposition to same-sex marriage among younger white evangelicals than among older white evangelicals, though majorities in both groups oppose same-sex marriage. Among white evangelicals younger than 35, 64% oppose and 31% favor same-sex marriage, while 78% of those 35 and older oppose it and 16% favor it. Across all Christian groups, those who attend church weekly or more are significantly more opposed to same-sex marriage than those who attend church less often.

Most Americans Favor Civil Unions

While most Americans oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, 54% say they favor allowing gays and lesbians to enter into legal agreements with each other that would give them many of the same rights as married couples, while 40% oppose civil unions. In August 2004, the public was more evenly split over this issue: 48% favored civil unions while 45% were opposed.

Support for civil unions is higher than support for same-sex marriage across all demographic groups. The contrast is especially notable among Republicans and independents. More than seven-in-ten Republicans (72%) oppose legalizing same-sex marriage and just 21% favor it; when it comes to civil unions, a much narrower majority of Republicans (55%) oppose it and 40% favor it. Independents, who are split on same-sex marriage (42% for and 46% against), are solidly in support of civil unions – fully six-in-ten favor it.

As with same-sex marriage, white evangelical Protestants and black Protestants express more opposition to civil unions than do members of other religious groups. About six-in-ten white evangelicals (59%) and a similar share of black Protestants (55%) oppose allowing gays and lesbians to enter into civil unions.

More than six-in-ten white mainline Protestants (64%) and white non-Hispanic Catholics (62%) favor civil unions, as does a smaller majority of Hispanic Catholics (52%). The religiously unaffiliated are among the most likely to support civil unions: 71% favor such arrangements while just 23% oppose them.

Mixed Views on Adoption by Homosexuals

Public opinion is divided on the issue of allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children. About the same number say they favor adoption by same-sex couples (46%) as say they oppose it (48%), which is little changed from 2006.

As is the case with support for same-sex marriage and for civil unions, support for allowing same-sex couples to adopt is more prevalent among women (50%) than men (42%) and also more among whites (48%) than among blacks (35%). Solid majorities of college graduates (59%), those younger than 30 (58%) and the religiously unaffiliated (64%) favor allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children, as do smaller majorities of Democrats (54%) and independents (53%). Only 31% of Republicans are in favor of adoption by same-sex couples and fully 64% oppose it.

Majorities of white mainline Protestants (56%) and white non-Hispanic Catholics (54%) express support for allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children. But white evangelical Protestants and black Protestants oppose it by large margins; 66% of white evangelical Protestants and 59% of black Protestants are against adoption by same-sex couples.

Among white Catholics and white evangelicals, frequent church attendance is associated with higher levels of opposition to gay adoption. Differences between more observant and less observant white mainline Protestants are less pronounced.

Abortion Opinion Stable

Consistent with recent findings, a majority of Americans (54%) say abortion should be legal in most (37%) or all (17%) cases, while 41% oppose legalized abortion in most (26%) or all (15%) circumstances. Men and women are about equally as likely to express support for abortion rights – 53% of men and 54% of women say it should be legal – but women are somewhat more likely than men to say abortion should be legal in all cases (20% of women vs. 14% of men).

Republicans are considerably more likely than Democrats and independents to oppose legalized abortion; 56% of Republicans say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, compared with 39% of independents and just one-third of Democrats. More than six-in-ten Democrats (63%) express support for legalized abortion in most (41%) or all (22%) cases. And while just 41% of all Republicans say abortion should be legal, fully two-thirds (67%) of moderate and liberal Republicans express this view.

Among major religious groups, only white evangelical Protestants express solid opposition to legalized abortion – 62% say it should be illegal in most (43%) or all (19%) cases, while 33% say abortion should be legal under most (24%) or all (9%) circumstances. Unlike on the issue of same-sex marriage, younger white evangelical Protestants are as opposed to abortion, or even more opposed, than are older white evangelicals.

Opinion on abortion among Catholics is closely divided, with about half (49%) saying abortion should be legal and a similar percentage (47%) saying it should not be. Among white non-Hispanic Catholics, opinion on abortion varies significantly based on frequency of church attendance. Nearly six-in-ten (57%) of those who attend church at least once a week oppose legalized abortion, including 27% who say it should be illegal in all cases. Among white non-Hispanic Catholics who attend church less frequently, a large majority (62%) say abortion should be legal and just 35% say it should not be.

Like Catholics, black Protestants are split in their views on legalized abortion. Just under half say abortion should be legal (48%), and about the same number (47%) say abortion should be illegal. The religiously unaffiliated express the most support for legalized abortion. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of those who do not identify as belonging to any particular religion say abortion should be legal in most (45%) or all (27%) cases.