SAN FRANCISCO—As John McCain and Barack Obama continue to fine-tune their platforms before this month's party conventions, a survey released this week has renewed debate in and out of the campaigns about the political leanings of a prominent—and often misunderstood—group of potential swing voters: Christians.
Ever since George W. Bush rode a wave of "values" votes into the White House in 2000 and 2004, political analysts have been mulling just how much restless evangelicals, in particular, with their strong views on hot-button cultural issues like abortion and gay marriage, seem to be reshaping the political landscape.
Exit polling conducted after Bush's win over John Kerry famously found "moral values" to be the top issue for many voters. Some 40 percent of American adults told pollsters they saw themselves as "evangelical." Pundits mused about the possibility of a permanent Republican majority.
The political times, however, could be changing. A study released this week by the Barna Group, a Christian research and consulting firm based in Ventura, Calif., finds that Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, currently enjoys the support of more faith-driven voters, including Christians, than his Republican rival.
The poll, which shows Obama ahead of McCain 43 percent to 34 percent among likely voters, also finds Obama leading in 18 of 19 different religious faith communities defined by the survey's strict standards. McCain leads in only one—evangelicals. In that category, however, the Republican has a huge lead, 61 to 17.
The Barna poll uses unusual methodology. Many pollsters take voters at their word when they say they are evangelical Christians, but the Barna survey is unusually specific about its categorizations. It asks voters a battery of nine questions about their religious beliefs—whether, for example, they think the Bible is accurate in everything it teaches, and whether they feel a personal responsibility to share their beliefs about Christ with non-Christians. Only when all nine questions are answered affirmatively are voters categorized as "evangelical."
This significantly reduces the survey's estimate of the total number of evangelical voters. By Barna's estimate, only 8 percent of U.S. voters are truly evangelical. "That is a much smaller group than you might think," says George Barna, the poll's director.
Not everybody agrees with his methodology, of course. Regardless, there is little doubt that evangelicals are still a highly motivated, well-organized voting bloc. Nearly 90 percent of evangelicals in the Barna study said they intend to vote in November.
The survey shows that the much debated "God gap" between Republicans and Democrats among Christian voters as a whole may not be nearly as dramatic as it appeared in 2004. Indeed, among those who self-identify as "evangelical" but who don't fit the Barna group's criteria, McCain holds only a 39 to 37 lead over Obama, with nearly 1 in 4 voters saying they are still undecided.
Among most other Christian groups, the Democratic candidate continues to enjoy a comfortable lead. Obama has a huge advantage among non-Christians, atheists, and agnostics, but he also leads among nonevangelical, born-again Christians (43 to 31), Christians who are neither born-again nor evangelical (44 to 28), Catholics (39 to 29), and Protestants (43 to 34). "If the current preferences stand pat," says Barna, "this would mark the first time in more than two decades that the born-again vote has swung toward the Democratic candidate."
Experts aren't sure exactly what is causing this shift. Obama has made a concerted effort to reach out to faith-oriented voters, including a splashy announcement this summer about expanding President Bush's faith-based initiative. He speaks more openly about his faith than many previous Democratic presidential candidates, and he has made an effort to find common ground with opponents of abortion.
Still, most experts believe that Christian voters' preferences, like those of many other voters, have less to do with the candidates' current positions than with a backlash against the Bush presidency. When asked to describe what makes the candidates stand out, at the top of the list for Christian voters currently supporting Obama is "being different from George Bush."
These numbers certainly aren't set in stone, and they are bound to change before November. The first harsh months of the campaign, including the controversy surrounding Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, have shaken some Christian voters' early confidence in him. During the past two months, Obama's lead has eroded substantially among nonevangelical, born-again Christians (down 9 percentage points), active Christians (a 20-point drop), Protestants (down 13 points), and Catholics (down 11 points).
When the pre-election advertising campaigns begin this fall—particularly those that emphasize Obama's support for abortion rights—those numbers may continue to drop. "There is a lot of anger toward the Bush administration," says Barna. "But faith-driven voters, in particular, are going back and re-examining their initial choice and trying to figure out if this is really someone whose values they can live with for another four to eight years."