New Values Survey from PRRI

by Michael Sean Winters

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The Public Religion Research Institute released yesterday a new set of findings from surveys conducted in September about the role of religion and values in shaping Americans’ political views. In this survey, PRRI focused on the Mormon Question, issues surrounding income inequality and the 2012 presidential campaign. Many of the findings are interesting and, like all such polling, the findings raise interesting questions about the political landscape.

42% of all voters indicated that they were “somewhat uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” with the idea of a Mormon President. By way of comparison, 67% say they would be somewhat or very uncomfortable with an atheist in the White House, 64% register the same skepticism about a Muslim, and 28% about an Evangelical.

50% of Democrats said they would be uncomfortable with a Mormon in the White House but it is impossible to know if this is mere religious bigotry or if it is the result of the assumption that Mormons tend to be very conservative. This latter interpretation gains probability when you look at the attitudes of Millennials, those voters aged 18-29. A majority of Millennials, 54%, indicate they would be uncomfortable with a Mormon President compared to only 39$ of seniors, those aged 65 and older. Younger voters not only tend to be less conservative and have demonstrated much greater sympathy with efforts to advance gay rights. The Mormon Church took a lead role in the effort to defeat gay marriage in California.

The most interesting finding, in my eyes, had to do with “hidden concerns.” It has been well demonstrated that voters are reluctant to tell a pollster that they are not going to vote for, say, a black man, but once in the voting booth, a certain percentage of the electorate won’t vote for a black man. Ask Harvey Gantt, the black mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, who was tied twice in the polls with Sen. Jesse Helms, in both 1990 and 1996, but lost by eight points. So, the researchers at PRRI devised a “List Experiment” in which a randomly selected group was asked three questions about things that bother them, but not asked to identify which of the three items bothered them, only to list the number of items. One of the items was “A family member marrying a born-again Christian” and another was “A mosque being built near your house.” The other half of the sample was given a fourth item – “A Mormon becoming president of the United States.” By comparing the two groups, they could identify “hidden concerns” about Mormonism. What is curious is that among all voters, as we saw above, 42% openly expressed concern about a Mormon in the White House and the number was unchanged among those expressing a hidden concern via the List Experiment. Similarly, Catholics and White Evangelicals, Democrats, Independents and Republicans, all showed a similar consistency between publicly expressed concerns and hidden concerns. But, one group, White Mainline Protestants, saw a big difference. Only 30% of White Mainline Protestants publicly expressed a concern about a Mormon in the White House but the List Experiment revealed that 57%, almost double, harbored hidden concerns. That number could prove very worrisome to Mitt Romney’s campaign.

The relationship between religious values and attitudes towards economic inequality were looked at from a variety of angles. As one of the commentators on the panel, Professor Jose Casanova of Georgetown said, deToqueville’s insights about the fraught relationship between freedom and equality is at the heart of the American political psyche, but, of course, unlike the antebellum United States, income inequality in America today is enormous. The PRRI survey asked whether respondents agreed with the statement that society would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal. 60% of all Americans agreed with that statement. 61% of Catholics agreed with that statement, compared to only 53% of White Evangelicals and 55% of White Evangelicals. Only 35% of Republicans agreed with the statement compared to 78% of Democrats and 60% of Independents. This tells me that if the President is able to keep the focus of the campaign on the fact that the economic game is rigged, and something needs to be done about it, he has a fair shot at winning. That 60% of Independents jumps off the page. The numbers also suggest that the Obama administration should avoid any fights with Catholics over the next year if they want to win.

Another key finding: 69% of Millennials agree that society would be better of with a more equal distribution of wealth. Obama needs to galvanize the youth vote again, as he did in 2008, but it will be harder this time because those young voters knew they were taking part in history four years ago. On the other hand, there are now four more years worth of new young voters for the Democrats to galvanize and get to the polls. Another issue emerges here: Where are the Millennials getting this commitment to equality? Majorities of all religious groups favored greater income equality, and presumably some of that commitment to the common good is derived from their religious values. But, Millennials are the least likely age cohort to attend church or identify with a specific religious tradition. Where, then, do they derive this core commitment to fairness and equality?

One set of questions in the PRRI poll tested the salience of certain economic issues. They identified six issues, and asked voters which of those six were “critical.” Large majorities of all voters said that “Creating jobs” and “Protecting Social Security” were critical issues. 59% of all voters said that “Reducing the deficit was important,” among whom 73% of Republicans agreed but only 50% of Democrats. But, on the next three issues, “Increasing government support for people in poverty,” “Reducing the gap between the rich and the poor,” and “Raising the minimum wage,” the partisan differences grow even greater. 53% of Democrats said that increasing support for the poor was critical, compared to only 23% of Republicans. 58% of Democrats agreed that reducing the wealth gap was critical, but only 22% of Republicans agreed. 51% of Democrats want the minimum wage increased but only 22% of Republicans agreed. You might say that the Common Good has vanished from the GOP radar screen and that the compassionate conservatism that George W. Bush championed in his 2000 campaign is now dead and buried.

Overall, the most stunning thing about the survey is the continued prominence of religion in American public life. It is inconceivable that such a survey would be conducted, or if conducted, would be seen to matter in France or Sweden or virtually any other industrialized democracy. The survey also shows that the Democrats need to do a better job of articulating their political positions in quasi-religious language, heavily inflected with Catholic idioms. The finding about views towards Mormons indicates to me that the congruence between religious and political conservatives is now complete and understood by both those who adhere to conservative orthodoxies and those who oppose them. Finally, if anyone can figure out what makes the Millennials tick, and articulate a vision that captures their values and speaks to their aspirations, they are going to dominate the political battlefield for years to come, and it appears that this task will be easier for the Democrats than the Republicans at this moment.

You can read the full survey results here.

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