What Moved Voters? Pastors and Flocks Disagree

By John Zmirak Published on December 15, 2016

Even as Clinton dead-enders cycle through scapegoats and conspiracy theories in their drawn-out path to acceptance of the fact that they lost the 2016 election, statistician George Barna of the American Culture and Faith Institute is still trying to understand what influenced voters to rally behind Donald Trump, especially among America’s religious communities. If his data are correct and representative, they suggest that church leaders have a somewhat exaggerated view of their own influence over conservative Christian voters — who seem to be moved more by personalities appearing on right-leaning secular media.

Just a week after the election, Barna turned up some interesting data on who exactly swung votes among conservative Christians. Based on a survey of 3,000 voters who fit this broad profile, Barna found that these voters cited a range of media personalities, and a few conservative leaders. The leading influencers, according to Barna’s selection of voters, were:

  • Radio host Rush Limbaugh (cited by 19%)
  • TV host Sean Hannity (17%)
  • TV host Bill O’Reilly (14%)
  • Radio host Laura Ingraham (12%)
  • Family Research Council President Tony Perkins (11%)
  • Columnist Charles Krauthammer (9%)
  • Radio Host Tim Wildmon (6%)
  • TV host Megyn Kelly (5%)
  • Televangelist Pat Robertson (5%)
  • Columnist and TV analyst Todd Starnes (4%)
  • TV personality Eric Bolling (4%)
  • TV and radio host Glenn Beck (3%), and
  • Radio host Michael Savage (3%).

Bran noted that even conservative Christian voters are much more likely to be moved by “mainstream” figures who appear on Fox News and comparable venues than by identifiable church leaders.

What Pastors See Differently from Their Flocks

In a subsequent report released December 14, the American Culture and Faith Institute asked religious conservatives which institutions they believe are most influential among the general public. According to Barna’s latest report, Christian conservatives think that of the eight “non-media sources of influence evaluated, labor unions had the most impact of all. In total, three out of ten … said that labor unions had ‘a lot’ of impact on peoples’ voting decisions.”

The next three entities with high perceived impact, were President Obama (25%), church-distributed voter guides (24%), and Christian non-profits (23%). Ranked slightly below were Protestant churches and pastors (20%) public opinion polls (15%); celebrity endorsers (14%); and Catholic churches and priests (12%). Perhaps Barna’s most surprising finding was the significance of voter guides. He noted that “three out of four … said they relied on at least one voter guide to help them make voting decisions in the November election.”

Conservative pastors clearly had a higher opinion of their influence on the election than did the people they sought to influence.

A survey which the American Culture and Faith Institute conducted of theologically conservative pastors showed a gap between those pastors’ perception of their own influence, and the perception of voters. “Conservative pastors clearly had a higher opinion of their influence on the election than did the people they sought to influence,” Barna reports, explaining: “While the pastors tended to rate themselves at the top of the list, conservative voters placed them in the middle of the pack in terms of influence. Similarly… pastors were more likely to see significant influence from Catholic priests and churches” than voters reported.

The report continues: “Although Protestant churches and pastors ranked fifth in influence … those religious leaders and organizations placed at the top of the list according to the pastors themselves. One out of every five [conservative] pastors said such entities had ‘a lot of impact’ on voters.”

Of course, Barna’s report measures only perceptions — specifically, what Christian voters think motivated the general voter in the most recent election. It’s quite possible that such conservatives are as misinformed as their pastors. And of course, there is no way to measure the power of prayer, of initiatives such as Franklin Graham’s 50-state tour to energize Americans and beg for divine protection for our country. In the end, that might have been the most powerful force of all.

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