Religious Stereotyping and Voter Support for Evangelical Candidates

Article excerpt

While much important research exists on the topic of religion and politics, very little exists on candidate religious affiliation and its potential effect on voters' behavior. This article addresses the issue of candidate religion from the point of view that it acts as an information cue for voters in elections through trait and belief stereotypes. Using a case study of hypothetical evangelical Christian candidates and an original experimental data set, this analysis demonstrates that voters stereotype evangelicals as more conservative than other candidates, as well as more competent and trustworthy, all else equal. These stereotypes subsequently play a significant role in voters' choices of whom to support.

Keywords: voting; stereotypes; information shortcuts; evangelicals; candidate religion

Religion in America has become increasingly entwined with politics during the past few decades. For example, voters are turning to their religious affiliations more and more to help them form political opinions and make voting decisions (Layman 1997; Miller and Hoffmann 1999). The major political patties' coalitions have become increasingly religiously homogenous, and Democratic and Republican activists have thus become increasingly polarized over cultural issues (Layman 1999). Perhaps as a result of these trends, researchers have also found strong religious influences on the voting behavior of legislators (most recently, Yamane and Oldmixon 2006). While this and other research tell us quite a bit about how an individual's - be it a voter, activist, or legislator religious affiliation affects his or her own actions, the literature has largely ignored one vital ingrethent in the relationship between religion and politics - electoral candidates' religious affiliations and how they may affect voters' evaluations and electoral decisions.

Given the increasing importance of religion in politics, understanding whether and how candidate religious affiliation matters seems critical to our understanding of voting behavior and elections. If voters do bring their own religion into the political realm and the choices they make, it is reasonable to expect that they would also pay attention to candidates' affiliations and be influenced by them.

Public opinion surveys have demonstrated that candidates' religious affiliations can affect voters' willingness to support them. For example, a Pew Foundation survey1 in 2003 found mat 8 percent of the American public said they would not be willing to vote for a "generally well-qualified" nominee from their political party if the candidate were Camolic. Likewise, 11 percent expressed opposition to voting for a Jewish candidate, 37 percent for a Muslim nominee, 17 percent for an evangelical Christian, and half would not vote for an atheist. While demonstrating that religious affiliation has some effect, however, these numbers do little to elucidate how candidate religion affects voters and their choices.

How might candidates' religious affiliations affect voters' choices? Existing research into other candidate characteristics offers a well-documented method heuristic processing. In heuristic processing, individuals use general and accessible rules of thumb to make judgments about new and potentially unfamiliar situations or people (Fiske and Taylor 1991). In other words, individuals simplify their world by taking information shortcuts (heuristics) rather than collecting complete information. These shortcuts are frequently in the form of stereotypes - generalizations that individuals hold about groups, and subsequently, group members (Fiske and Taylor 1991). When it comes to politics, the heuristic process is the same; social and political stereotypes frequently provide the information for individuals' cognitive shortcuts (Ottati and Wyer 1990; Rahn 1993).

This article examines candidate religion as such an information shortcut. It uses original data from an experimental study to establish how candidate religious affiliation affects voters' images of candidates, as well as how this affects voters' choices. …