Changing Election Opinions in Ohio Among Christian Conservatives Reflect National Shifts

NOTE: This is another in a series of statewide reports based on research conducted by ACFI in battleground states. Other election-related reports by ACFI can be accessed at www.culturefaith.com.

With less than one week to go before Election 2016, the ground is shifting like an earthquake as Americans reconsider who they really want in the White House and the U.S. Senate. It is a fitting end to an election cycle that has seen more intrigue, conflicts, and plot twists than a day-time soap opera desperate for network renewal. The latest survey from the American Culture & Faith Institute, conducted in the swing state of Ohio, confirms that even the Christian conservative population, which is notoriously consistent in its thinking and voting behavior, has made some substantial shifts in opinion since ACFI’s previous statewide poll in the Buckeye State.

Ohio is one of the most important swing states in the current election season. Along with Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, these four states hold the key to who is likely to become America’s 45th President, and will substantially influence which party is likely to have a majority of seats in the U.S. Senate.

State of the Presidential Race

The initial survey completed in Ohio took place in May, after it was clear that Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton would be the party nominees. At that time 67% of SAGE Cons – the Spiritually Active, Governance Engaged conservatives tracked by ACFI – were supporting Mr. Trump. A total of 15% were spread across several alternative candidates, 8% said they would vote in November but not for a presidential candidate, and 11% were undecided.

Things have changed – “bigly.” Currently, 92% of the SAGE Cons in Ohio are supporting Mr. Trump, less than 1% back Mrs. Clinton, and 4% support other candidates. Further, only 1% now claims that they will vote but not for president, and the proportion of undecided voters has plummeted to a mere 1%.

Among those backing Mr. Trump, the proportion saying they are “totally committed” to voting for him has jumped from 59% in May to 83% today.

Perhaps the most interesting shift, however, relates to the reasons why people are supporting the New York businessman. Back in May, two-thirds of his supporters (66%) chose him because of their dislike of Mrs. Clinton. In addition, slightly more than one-third (37%) said his positions on critical issues attracted them to his candidacy.

Now, five months and countless surprising campaign moments later, the table has flipped. The most common motivation for backing Mr. Trump is now his positions on key issues, listed by 75%. Like their counterparts across the nation, Ohio SAGE Cons have not warmed up to Mrs. Clinton during the campaign season. Fewer of them plan to vote for her now, and 57% said their dislike of her was a dominant reason for their decision to support the Republican candidate. That reason currently places a distant second in explaining peoples’ support for Mr. Trump.

State of the Senate Race

Back in May, incumbent GOP Senator Rob Portman was trailing former Governor Ted Strickland in many statewide polls. However, even at that early stage of the race 83% of SAGE Cons had decided to support Mr. Portman, with only 1% vying for Mr. Strickland. At that time 5% said they would vote but not for a Senator and 11% were undecided.

Fast forward to the beginning of November, and Mr. Portman still has an 84% share of the SAGE Con vote. Most of the undecided vote has been won by a latecomer to the race, Tom Connors. While Connors has been a barely-visible blip on the radar statewide with total support in the low single digits, he currently has the support of 10% of SAGE Cons. However, the two major-party candidates had raised $35 million between them (through the end of September), overwhelming the $41,000 collected by the Connors campaign.

The depth of commitment to Mr. Portman has risen substantially since May. Back then about half of his SAGE Con supporters (52%) were “totally committed” to his candidacy. Now the figure stands at almost eight out of ten (78%).

Ohioan SAGE Cons appear to be relative satisfied with Mr. Portman as their candidate of choice. Their primary reason for supporting the incumbent Senator Portman is his stands on issues (54%). Nearly one-third (31%) back him because of his track record. The same proportion say they are giving him their vote because of their dislike for Mr. Strickland.

Outcomes You Would Expect

As might be expected, SAGE Cons in Ohio have increased the level of attention they have devoted to the election as the time to vote has gotten nearer. In May, 60% said they were paying “a lot of attention” to the race. That has risen to 69% as of the end of October. Altogether, those who were paying either “a lot” or “quite a bit” of attention climbed from 72% in May to 93% currently.

Not surprisingly, there has been no discernible shift in how SAGE Cons in Ohio are getting their news about the election. Earlier in the year, independent online news sources were the most common means of finding out about the campaigns, followed by information derived from mainstream television networks. As the campaign winds down, those remain the dominant news sources for Ohio SAGE Cons: one-third (34%) relying primarily on independent online sources and one-fifth (22%) turning mostly to broadcast TV channels.

It is also noteworthy that three-fourths of the Ohio SAGE Cons believe that the outcome of the election will make a big difference in their life.

Outcomes You Wouldn’t Expect

Perhaps the most unexpected change since May has been the shift in the issues that Christian conservatives in Ohio believe to be the most serious issues facing the United States.

Five months ago these voters named the excessive size and reach of the federal government, as well as the moral decline of the nation, as the top issues. One out of four people (24%) listed each of those as the biggest concerns. Those were followed by abortion (cited by 21%), excessive federal government spending (19%), the need for rule of law (14%), and marriage and family issues (13%).

Perspectives have changed, however. The top two issues are now viewed as abortion (named by 30%) and the Supreme Court nominations (28%). (The latter had been mentioned by only 9% in May.) Those matters are trailed by our moral decline and the excessive size and reach of the federal government (17% each), excessive federal government spending (13%), and threats to religious freedom (12%).

SAGE Cons Pushing Swing States to Trump

During polling among SAGE Cons in October within seven of the key battleground states, the Christian conservatives showed widespread unity in support behind Donald Trump. The average support for the GOP candidate was 87%, ranging from a low of 76% in Iowa to a high of 95% in Florida. Overall, an average of 96% of those voters was supporting Mr. Trump either “totally” or “mostly.”

The Senate races in those seven states also displayed a widely shared sentiment in support of the GOP candidates. Almost nine out of ten SAGE Cons (89%) in those seven states were backing the incumbent Republican candidate. The averages revealed that 76% of those voters were totally committed to the Republican candidate, and 96% were either “totally” or “mostly” committed to voting for him. The candidate with the least support was John McCain of Arizona (76%), while underdog Ron Johnson of Wisconsin had won over the highest level of support, earning 97% of the SAGE Con votes.

Turnout is Now the Key

The changes witnessed in Ohio since the end of the primary election season are indicative of a lot of reflection and soul searching by the American people. That’s the view of pollster George Barna, who has been tracking the opinions of thousands of SAGE Cons throughout this election cycle.

“The no-brainer issue of concern, of course, is the economy. Everyone is affected by it, and the mediocre recovery has made it a continually hot issue. Most Americans cite it as their biggest concern, almost by default. However,” Barna noted, “as the race has become tighter and campaign events have caused people to take a closer look at both candidates, peoples’ priority issues have also changed, especially among conservatives. They have begun to realize that they are choosing a president for the next four years, but that the individuals their presidential choice nominates to the Supreme Court will have an effect on the country for decades. And after the third debate, in which both candidates clarified their opposing views on abortion law, Christian conservatives have been reawakened to the significance of that particular issue as well as its relationship to the Supreme Court nominees.

“So the shift in the issue priorities of conservatives does not mean that they have given up on matters such as our nation’s moral decline or the need for a president who embraces the rule of law. They have simply replaced those more philosophical concerns with several issues through which those principles will be applied by our next president.”

Asked about the role of SAGE Cons in this election, the veteran researcher and bestselling author encapsulated their critical position. “SAGE Cons currently represent about 12% of the voting population. That’s one out of eight voters, which equals the size of the African-American vote, is about the same size as the Hispanic vote, and is almost as big as the labor union vote. In other words, no candidate can win an election simply by winning SAGE Cons.

“But, because of their size and influence within the conservative constituency,” Barna concluded, “no conservative candidate can win without earning a large share of the SAGE Con vote. The more conservative candidates in the presidential and battleground Senate races have successfully accomplished that. What is now left is to make sure SAGE Cons vote in the huge proportions that have historically characterized them. We are expecting better than 85% turnout among these Christian conservatives, ranking them at or near the top of the turnout charts among all voter segments.”

On Tuesday we will know whether those predictions held true.

About the Research

The research described in this report is part of the RightView™ tracking survey among spiritually active, governance engaged conservatives who are registered voters – a segment known as SAGE Cons.

There were seven separate surveys undertaken for this report, one in each of seven “swing” or “battleground” states. The number of surveys conducted in those states were 350 in Arizona; 350 in Florida; 300 in Iowa; 400 in North Carolina; 350 in Ohio; 350 Pennsylvania; and 250 in Wisconsin. The interviews were conducted online by the American Culture & Faith Institute in October 2016 among random samples of people who qualified as SAGE Cons.

In RightView™ studies SAGE Cons are identified as adults who are registered voters; conservative on political matters; have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior; are consistently pursuing their Christian faith; and are actively engaged in politics and government. They represent about 12% of the national voting population and constitute approximately 30 million individuals.

The American Culture & Faith Institute is a division of United in Purpose, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. The mission of United in Purpose is to educate, motivate and activate conservative Christians related to the political process, in ways that are consistent with the gospel of Christ. The organization does not support or promote individual candidates or political parties.

Additional information about this study and related research is accessible on the American Culture & Faith Institute website, located at www.culturefaith.com. To receive a free copy of these newsletters, visit the website and register for the SAGE Con Weekly newsletter.