Remember the start of the primary season when Republicans had a field of 16 candidates and no clear direction? As the 2016 campaign heads into the final turn, with just eight weeks to go until Election Day, a new analysis of a series of surveys among SAGE Cons – the Christian conservatives involved in pursuing their faith and participating in the political process – indicates that while changes have occurred since the beginning of the year, the group seems to be solidifying its support behind Donald Trump. The research from the American Culture and Faith Institute (ACFI) looks at four factors that have been tracked since the start of the 2016.
SAGE Cons differ from the population at-large in several ways. One of those is their engagement with politics and government. The ACFI surveys help to illustrate that difference.
At the beginning of the year, as the primaries were heating up, 85% of SAGE Cons were already tuned in to the election. Across nine surveys conducted by ACFI this year among this group, that degree of attentiveness has not wavered by more than a few percentage points. In August, 84% said they were paying a lot or quite a bit of attention to the race, with most of the rest (14%) saying they were devoting some attention to the campaign.
In other words, most SAGE Cons locked in early and have stayed locked in to what is happening in the election.
Backing Donald Trump
During the pre-primary season, Donald Trump was as controversial among SAGE Cons as he was to most other Americans. In a January survey among SAGE Cons, Mr. Trump was the favorite of just 11% of these voters. His favorability ratings were quite low at the time, with only 15% claiming to have a very favorable impression of him.
During the eight months since that survey, things have changed dramatically for the New York real estate mogul. Once it became clear that he was the GOP favorite for the party’s nomination, 70% of SAGE Cons said they would vote for him in a match-up against Hillary Clinton. That level of support in a head-to-head contest remained unchanged until after the Republican convention in late July. At that point his support jumped to 83%. It has remained in the 80% to 84% range ever since.
The ACFI surveys indicate that most of the increase in support has come from Christian conservatives who had previously been inclined to support a third-party candidate. However, while the initial disappointment and shock of seeing Mr. Trump gain the GOP nod pushed 17% of SAGE Cons to back a third-party candidate in the early summer months – that level of support has been sliced in half. Currently, just 8% now expect to vote for Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, or one of the other numerous third-party or independent candidates. Another 3% plan to vote, but not for any presidential candidate, and the remaining 4% are still undecided.
Mrs. Clinton has never caught on with SAGE Cons. At the start of 2016 she was in line to get 2% of their vote. During the summer months she was generating less than 1% support from the group, but her support has spiked to 4% among Christian conservatives as of the end of August.
One of the reasons for supporting a candidate is how well they are expected to perform the duties of the job. There has been a seismic shift in how SAGE Cons view Mr. Trump’s potential as Chief Executive of the United States.
In March of this year, as he continued his drive to win the party nomination, Mr. Trump was expected to do an “excellent” or “good” job, if elected, by only 40% of SAGE Cons. That reflected his low favorability ratings, concerns about his inexperience, and the hope many SAGE Cons still had at that time that Ted Cruz or Ben Carson might be able to wrestle the nomination away from the surging New Yorker. (John Kasich was also in the race, but not well-liked by SAGE Cons.)
Once he became the party standard-bearer, though, many more SAGE Cons changed their views about Donald Trump’s potential. By July, two-thirds (66%) believed he would do an excellent or good job. By the middle of August that proportion had jumped again, to three-quarters (75%) of the Christian conservatives.
It is worth noting that the surveys also identified a significant drop in those who felt he would do a sub-standard job (i.e., “not too good” or “poor”) as president. That proportion dropped from 30% in March to just 12% in the most recent measurement.
Hillary Clinton has generated very stable results in relation to expectations of her performance if she is elected to the White House. Among SAGE Cons, she has never garnered higher than 2% who believed she would do an excellent or good job as president.
Winning the Senate
One of the most important outcomes in November will be the results of the 34 Senate races being waged. The Republican Party currently holds a majority of the seats in the Senate, but with a substantial number of hotly-contested Senate races on ballots across the nation, leadership of the senior chamber is truly up for grabs.
At the beginning of the year, almost three-quarters of SAGE Cons (72%) were confident that Republicans would maintain their Senate majority. However, as the campaign has unfolded, that confidence has waned. That was particularly evident during the latter half of the summer, ending with just 61% of SAGE Cons now believing that the Republican Party will emerge as the majority party on November 8.
Traditionally, most voters have paid limited attention to presidential and congressional races until after Labor Day. This election cycle, however, has been markedly different from those in the past. And SAGE Cons are a different breed of voter, according to researcher George Barna.
“This is a segment of the population, representing roughly one out of every eight votes in a presidential election, who are deeply aware of the importance of these elections. They know that what happens in government affects people’s lives in dramatic ways. Consequently, they pay attention early and stay engaged for the duration of the campaign.”
Barna does not expect to see big changes in the support levels for Mr. Trump from SAGE Cons over the next eight weeks. “We have been anticipating him landing in the 80% to 85% range by the end of the race. The candidate of choice among Christian conservatives has averaged 84% of their vote over the last four presidential elections, and we expect him to wind up in that same range. Christian conservatives have become more comfortable with him – and increasingly less comfortable with Mrs. Clinton – as the campaign has progressed. The third-party candidates do not satisfy the interests of most SAGE Cons on the key issues and will therefore be unlikely to draw more than 7% of the SAGE Con vote.”
The Senate races are another matter altogether, according to the researcher. “Our exploration of various states with competitive Senate races suggests that there will be more Senate battles that are closer than we originally anticipated. Mr. Trump has yet to emerge as a strong draw for down-ticket candidates. SAGE Cons will generally cast their vote for the most conservative major-party legislative candidate available, and those candidates are typically Republican. The rest of the nation, though, is not as definitive yet about their Senate preference.”
About the Research
The research described in this report is part of the RightView™ longitudinal survey, a national study undertaken among spiritually active, governance engaged conservatives who are registered voters – a segment known as SAGE Cons. The nine surveys alluded to in this report had sample sizes that ranged from 1,000 to 3,400 qualified adults, conducted online by the American Culture & Faith Institute under the direction of George Barna. The surveys described in this report were fielded from mid-January through late August of 2016.
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 active in pursuing their Christian faith; and are actively engaged in politics and government. They represent about 12% of the national adult population, which constitutes a segment of 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. The organization does not support or promote individual candidates or political parties.
Additional information about this and related research is accessible on the American Culture & Faith Institute website, located at www.culturefaith.com.