The presidential turnoff that The Wall Street Journal forgot to ask about

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal published a survey conducted with NBC News that flipped the traditional presidential thermometer questions on their heads and asked readers what traits would make them less likely to vote for a candidate.

After all, we know that “shares my values” and “strong leader” are political turn-ons, but polls don’t take time to quantify what sends the wrong thrill up voters’ legs nearly as often.

The survey found that more Americans either have reservations about or are very uncomfortable with voting for an Evangelical Christian (44%) than do about voting for an LGBT candidate (37%). The candidate traits that voters are least ready for are having no prior experience in government (69%) and not having a college degree (63%). The two groups that registered the least discomfort were, perhaps unsurprisingly, candidates who are black (13%) or female (14%).

The survey went out of its way to ask questions relevant to the 2016 race. For instance, Scott Walker’s lack of a college degree almost certainly prompted that question’s inclusion. Respondents were also asked about their discomfort level with a candidate who has a former president in their family (34%), an obvious nod to Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

However, the survey left one item off of their list of traits that probably should have been there. Respondents should have been asked how they would feel about voting for a candidate who does not believe in a personal God.

Depending on how you ask the question, nonbelievers are viewed with either suspicion or disgust by the average American voter. A recent Pew survey had “atheists” in a statistical tie with Muslims for last place in terms of how favorably religious groups saw each other. Atheists came in at 41% favorable; for comparison, Evangelical Christians — the group 44% of Americans have at least some reservations about voting for in a presidential election — were rated at 61% favorable.

Given the confusion about what the word “atheist” means, this isn’t all that surprising. Many in the ranks of the religious mistakenly believe that atheism implies an active rejection of God that amounts to a belief in and of itself. It doesn’t. It simply means a lack of belief.

And there is at least one candidate in the 2016 race who, for all intents and purposes, embodies this lack of belief: Bernie Sanders.

The Wall Street Journal, via Gil C / Shutterstock.com

The Wall Street Journal, via Gil C / Shutterstock.com

Bernie Sanders officially identifies as Jewish, but he’s Jewish in the same way that I and many other American Jews are Jewish: culturally, not religiously. Another Pew survey found that 62% of American Jews consider being Jewish to be a matter of ancestry and culture as opposed to formal religious beliefs. The same survey found that, when given a list of characteristics and asked to indicate which ones were “essential” to being Jewish, only 19% indicated that “observing Jewish law” was a requirement for Jewish identity, the second-least important trait (eating traditional Jewish food came in last). For reference, more than twice as many American Jews (42%) consider “having a good sense of humor” to be an essential part of being Jewish.

So while it wouldn’t be quite accurate to describe Sanders as an “atheist,” I’d be willing to bet my Bar Mitzvah money that if you asked Sanders if he believed in a personal God the same way that Mike Huckabee and Hillary Clinton claim to, he’d say something between “no” and “why are you even asking me this when the Koch brothers still exist?” Sanders practically never discusses religion, and his politics tracks about as far away from the faithful as could be. He’s regularly earned himself 0/100 ratings from the Christian Coalition, and was described in this post from Religion News Service last week as “unabashedly irreligious.”

Bernie Sanders entry into the 2016 race makes his non-belief as relevant as Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina’s lack of political experience. Even more relevant, given that Sanders is performing better in the polls than either of them. That we actually have elected a President with no political experience in the modern era — Eisenhower — while there are currently no openly unbelieving members of Congress, makes the question even more worth asking.

America is a religious contradiction, founded on secular values and averse to secular leaders. It would have been interesting to see just how averse we remain to the idea of a truly secular President. Next time around, the voters should be asked.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • mark_in_toronto

    How about, “Would you vote for a candidate who ISN’T a Democrat or Republican?”
    That would get a big YES from me.
    That seems to be a trend that pollsters are ignoring.

  • Elizabeth Ann Stewart

    As someone old enough to remember WWII, I can tell you that the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and Carter’s inability to deal with it proficiently, could not be tolerated by the American people in 1980. That just did not fit our national self-image. Baby Bush and his advisors understood that political reality after 9/11.

  • Elizabeth Ann Stewart

    Okay, you prefer to say that poor inept Carter was just “incorrectly talented” for the office of the Presidency; I’ll go with that! As for Carter being the “better person,” by whatever value system you judge that, we really can’t say because sadly Ronnie toward the end of his Presidency and beyond into his retirement was obviously no longer a person, but a demented shell. Carter, however, has apparently kept his wits, and his nice fellow persona, and his fortune, and is thus able to amuse himself with Habitat for Humanity and to continue to promote his image of religious charity.

    As an atheist and as one who believes adamantly in completely secular government, I do not share your view of Jimmy Carter as more or less a harmless saint. That psalm-singing SOB was the first presidential candidate to get himself elected on the “I am religious” platform, and he made it usual and acceptable for Presidents to promote religious beliefs as a basis of policy; he opened the door for the religious right to claim that the US is a Christian nation and for them to try to enact into law and policy their religious bigotry. Even though he himself in his later years recognized their hypocrisy and distanced himself from his church, the damage was already done.

    And Carter was a Democrat! With friends like that, secular Democrats don’t need enemies.

  • FLL

    Dear Moderator 4,

    Please forgive the off-topic post, but it would be unreasonable for me to expect you to comb through threads from eight days ago in order to find my reply simply because I disappeared for eight days. Between semesters here in Fort Lauderdale, I was with friends in Northwest Montana’s Flathead Valley (Kalispell and surrounding towns), and I honestly was without my own computer and, in any case, having way too much fun investigating the wide variety of political opinions peculiar to that part of Montana. I thought I would be being a pushy guest to say, “Oh, could you check Americablog’s comment pages for me.” Instead, I let my Flathead Valley friends set the parameters for the political discussion, which is the reason for the eight-day postponement. In no way did I mean to ignore your reply, and even you would admit that it would be out of character for me to ignore it. Besides, I can see by this thread (Bill’s comment, with “likes” from Nicho and Mirth, and emjayjay’s reply, with “likes” from Jon Green and Indigo) that you are capable of having plenty of fun without me intruding, which brings me to your reply:

    FLL, you need to back off from your obsession with Bill Perdue. Either back off, or we will make sure that you back off.

    My comment from eight days ago was the first time that I thought of a strategy on Bill’s part that I had not considered before: trying to convince the bloggers and readers that Republican sponsored voter suppression of the black vote (which is always the centerpiece of efforts to elect a conservative Republican candidate) is “no big deal,” and that the bloggers shouldn’t fuss about such efforts. I think I remember Jon Green writing a piece about Republican efforts to suppress voting in general. However, let’s say—for the sake of argument—that Jon Green and other voters took Bill’s advice and didn’t report on such efforts during the next year and a half. I just Googled the keywords “voter suppression” and “black” and “vote,” and it’s absolutely everywhere—The Daily Beast, Mother Jones, Huffingtonpost, Salon, ThinkProgress, The Atlantic—I mean everywhere. So you’re right, Moderator 4, there’s no need for me to point out that Bill is suggesting that the bloggers here ignore the issue. Apart from that, my guess is that Jon Green and others won’t ignore the issue, but that’s just a guess.

    In short, I’ll just let nature take its course (as you’ve asked me to) as Jon Green and the other bloggers either ignore or heed Bill’s very obvious advice to ignore the suppression of the black vote (and it’s corresponding benefit for the Republican candidates) for whatever reasons Bill puts forth. We both know that a discussion of this tactic will be plastered from one end of the Internet to the other over the next 18 months. No need for me to intrude when Bill gives the bloggers on this particular issue.

  • Joey__Blow

    People forget that after vietnam, revolutionary movements were ascendant in the world… swapo, unita, sandinista, cuban, uh.. congo jonas somebody.. and the us always supported the dictator.. the murderous thieving physcopaths.. they were our guys…

    Carter said that basic human rights were something that everyone deserved and that the US would no longer help strongmen kill and eat their people. OK not always followed, but it was a positive idea that staunched the tide of soviet backed people’s movements…

  • Steven George

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    In 2013 I was hospitalized when my CD4 count nosedived to 86 (HIV-negative people have a CD4 count of between 700 and 1,000; a CD4 count of below 200 is considered dangerously low). It was a terrible time. I have a vivid memory of sitting in a wheelchair covered with a blanket and catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I looked and felt like a little old lady.

    I was so ill I could barely walk 200 meters. I hadn’t realized how little I appreciated my health until it was taken away from me. Fortunately I had a fantastic support system. Even though I was struggling to cope at work I didn’t lose my job. On the contrary the company I work for, my colleagues and my boss have been incredibly supportive throughout my illness.

    It was a frustrating time because I so desperately wanted to function like a normal human being. Yet I honestly thought I was going to die. I thought I was too far gone. It’s almost as if your body begins to reject everything it requires to sustain life. It was probably the scariest time of my life. I wished not for a bigger house or more money or a fancy car – I wanted to have the strength to go for a simple walk on the beach.

    To this day that time has stuck with me and it has been life-changing. I wasn’t really materialistic before but if I ever find myself becoming caught up in the whirlwind of life I stop and take myself back to that time. The best things in life really are priceless.

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  • Yes, but as someone old enough to remember the 70s (I was a news-junkie even as a teenager), a lot of Carter’s problems were of his own doing. The bungling of the policies towards Iran (up to and including the revolution), boycotting the 1980 Olympics, the public disapproval of the Panama Canal agreement, and so many others. Yes, he got some bad breaks. Had the Iranian hostage rescue mission been successful, he might have been re-elected. That wasn’t his fault. But he was a weak president which left Americans thinking that someone strong would be better. Carter is obviously the better person, but there were some bad decisions. He also had a hard time working with a Democratic-majority Congress which didn’t help.

  • Right, I’m not contesting that. But when I say that he didn’t have political experience, I’m using the poll’s definition of political experience, i.e. having held elected office.

  • lynchie

    Are you saying she isn’t electable? Funny Johnny boy thought she would win women and give him and his buddies a chubby.

  • The_Fixer

    I think you’re correct in that President Carter was left a legacy of long-term U.S. interference in Iraq. It was bound to boil over, and it just happened to boil over on his watch. I doubt that he could have prevented it, and he had nothing to do with the installation of the Shah.

    Soon-to-be-President Reagan’s team interfered in every way possible in an effort to undermine Carter and give themselves an advantage in the election. Reagan’s dishonesty certainly was out of Carter’s control.

    While it’s tempting to think of Carter as being inept, I can’t agree. The one thing he did have control over was messaging. He was not good at it, he preferred his actions do the speaking. Add to this the economic slump and the false promise that Uncle Ronnie would fix it all, and we have a perfect storm of sh!t that put him out of office. I don’t think he was so much inept as incorrectly talented, if you get what I mean.

    My only comfort is that while Reagan is revered by the far-right wing, we can all see who the better person turned out to be, and he’s actually building houses for poor people well past retirement age.

  • BigGuy

    I was not reacting to the whole of your essay, or anything about polls, but was responding to your words that, “we actually have elected a President with no political experience in the modern era — Eisenhower”.

    I assert that Eisenhower had a great deal of political experience and skill before he entered politics. His military career evinces that.

  • Skye Winspur

    Interesting also that the poll didn’t ask about voting for Jews; the last Jewish Republican in Congress, Eric Cantor, was unseated in a primary battle last year, and anti-Semitism is still a force in Republican circles. (http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/la-na-missouri-gop-20150404-story.html)

  • Political skill =/= elected office, and that’s what the question put to voters in the poll was asking.

  • BigGuy

    Eisenhower was never elected to political office prior to becoming President. Saying he had “no political experience” is simply not true. That’s false.

    In 1930, at 40, Ike became assistant to the Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur. Eisenhower thought that “MacArthur could never see another sun, or even a moon for that matter, in the heavens, as long as HE was the sun”.
    Eisenhower: Portrait of the Hero, Peter Lyon, pg. 69

    In March 1941, he was made a full colonel and three months later was appointed commander of the 3rd Army. In September, he was promoted to brigadier general.

    After the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Army Chief of Staff Marshall appointed Eisenhower to the War Plans Division in Washington, where he prepared strategy for an Allied invasion of Europe. Promoted to major general in March 1942 and named head of the operations division of the War Department, he advised Marshall to create a single post that would oversee all U.S. operations in Europe. Marshall did so and on June 11 surprised Eisenhower by appointing him to the post over 366 senior officers. On June 25, 1942, Eisenhower arrived at U.S. headquarters in London and took command.

    In 15 months, Ike moved up in rank from Colonel to Supreme Allied Commander, appointed over 366 men with higher rank That’s political skill — not magic.

  • The_Fixer

    Maybe they didn’t ask the question because they already knew the answer to it? :)

    Actually, I think it’s more that religion is so pervasive the it is already assumed that all candidates are at least churchgoers ( in spite of the electorate’s reluctance to go there themselves). It never occurred to them to ask that question because they make that assumption like most everyone else. Likely, everyone the surveyors know is a believer, and damn near all politicians proclaim to be such, and loudly. It’s quite probable that those who designed the survey were all believers, not asking the question reflects their current life experience.

    Additionally, the belief that going to church = a person of good moral character has been with us forever (in spite of copious evidence of the contrary). Nearly all politicians make it a point to appear to be churchgoers who drink the Kool-Aid. It’s what is expected of them, and most willingly go through pains to appear as though they live up to that expectation. If a candidate doesn’t, he or she will be unelectable. The same can be said of those of the “wrong” religion (with rare exception, of course).

    I think that the electability of an atheist candidate is the inverse of the popularity of religion, and will remain that way. It’s clear that we have a long way to go before religion totally loses its lustre, and its strong grip on people.

  • Knottwhole

    Proud to say that I don’t believe in god.

  • Bill_Perdue

    your comment would be true if it were limited to articles on Fox News. But these articles come from liberals in the main and like the Mother Jones article “Hillary’s Prayer” in 2007 are published by people who rightly fear that the Clintons will drive the Democrats even further to the right and that they’ll become even more indistinguishable from their Republican cousins.

    Democrats depend on being able to pretend that they’re not to the right of the Republicans and they terrified that the Clintons will deny them their deniability.

    Here are some examples of liberal attacks on the Clintons and their ‘Foundation’. Actually, there have been a flood of them all deadly serious and all aimed at derailing the Clinton locomotive.

    http://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/first-read-foundation-questions-continue-plague-clinton-n346821

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/for-clintons-speech-income-shows-how-their-wealth-is-intertwined-with-charity/2015/04/22/12709ec0-dc8d-11e4-a500-1c5bb1d8ff6a_story.html

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/23/us-usa-election-clinton-taxes-exclusive-idUSKBN0NE0CA20150423

    http://www.politico.com/story/2015/04/hillary-clintons-wall-street-backers-we-get-it-117017.html

  • Indigo

    That’s a separate topic that has to do with the operations of the media. filed under gossip, as far as I’m concerned. Character assassination as a hobby.

  • Bill_Perdue

    That doesn’t explain why the press is following the question so closely, as they do most personal scandals in an election year.

  • nicho

    It’s still OK to pick on atheists. Many people, me included, were raised in an era when not believing in a god was considered evil. We hated the Communists not because of their economic policies, but because they were “godless.” So, for many people, that’s still a factor.

  • nicho

    The thread is about “presidential turnoffs.” I think having a candidate be a corrupted shill for the corporatocracy might be a turnoff — even moreso than atheism.

  • 2karmanot

    Well, it’s the old Aquinas circular logic trap: There is an absolute God, therefore any non belief is heretical and therefore creates dualistic thinking by terms like atheist and agnostic. That’s the construction of an Abrahamic reality. The truth, however, is quite different: There is no god. Period. One might be a sophist and opine that non-belief in a non existence could count as existential, rather than divine. Oh my god (pardon the pun) I just gave myself a headache.

  • For an Evangelical, you’re absolutely right to say it wouldn’t matter. But there are a lot of Americans who themselves hold religious beliefs that are casual at best who are turned off by Richard Dawkins, et al’s brand of “atheism” or “anti-theism” while having more respect for what they’d call “agnosticism.” To them, it’s a difference between being told “you’re wrong and should feel bad” as opposed to “no one knows if they’re right and that’s OK.”

  • goulo

    And it’s therefore also interesting that so many people (who might feel ashamed to publisly admit that they wouldn’t vote for a woman or a black person for president) DO still feel comfortable saying openly that they would refuse to vote for an atheist for president.

    I’m not sure about the point Jon raises about the semantic ambiguity between active atheistic belief that there is no god versus passive atheistic lack of belief in god. Neither one SHOULD matter. I wonder if there would really be a big difference if the polls distinguished; I’d expect that in any case, the religious people who refuse to vote for someone who believes there is no god would also refuse to vote for someone who doesn’t believe there is a god.

  • Indigo

    Little. Possibly none.

  • Bill_Perdue

    This, or any discussion of the election, is a relevant place to raise issues connected to the upcoming banana republic run off.

    Now that that’s settled what effect to you think the utter and total corruption of the Clinton family will have on the election?

  • emjayay

    Couldn’t find a relevant place to stick that one, but just couldn’t wait?

  • Bill_Perdue

    This and similar stories on NBC, in Al Jazeera and many other sources may prove even more important, before, or if HRC wins, after the election.

    ” The Realities of 2016 – Hillary Clinton is, of course, not her husband. But her access to his past banker alliances, amplified by the ones that she has formed herself, makes her more of a friend than an adversary to the banking industry. In her brief 2008 candidacy, all four of the New York-based Big Six banks ranked among her top 10 corporate donors. They have also contributed to the Clinton Foundation. She needs them to win, just as both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton did.

    No matter what spin is used for campaigning purposes, the idea that a critical distance can be maintained between the White House and Wall Street is naïve given the multiple channels of money and favors that flow between the two. It is even more improbable, given the history of connections that Hillary Clinton has established through her associations with key bank leaders in the early 1990s, during her time as a senator from New York, and given their contributions to the Clinton foundation while she was secretary of state. At some level, the situation couldn’t be less complicated: her path aligns with that of the country’s most powerful bankers. If she becomes president, that will remain the case.” http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175993/tomgram%3A_nomi_prins%2C_hillary%2C_bill%2C_and_the_big_six_banks/

  • nicho

    But, oddly enough, they preferred Reagan over Carter. Reagan was the farthest thing from religious and Jimmy Carter was a sincere Christian who lived his beliefs without imposing them on other people.

  • nicho

    The problem with these polls is that people often give answers that they think are the correct thing to say. They won’t admit that they wouldn’t vote for a black person, because they don’t want to say that to a pollster. The same for a woman. It’s much safer to say you wouldn’t vote for someone with no previous political experience. And I find it chilling that that answer wasn’t closer to 100 percent. But then, 59,000,000 Americans thought Sarah Palin was presidential material.

  • Indigo

    We need a definition of the word religion that is not vetted by hysterical christianism. A similar poll ranks Japan as one of the least religious countries in the world. But the Shinto shrines are visited regularly, people rinse their hands and mouth at the well, bow and clap to the kami, and toss a few coins in the box with great regularity. By the same token, a Buddhist funeral is usual, visits to the temple, bow and wave incense sticks and be on your way. Not religious? Active, though, and all under the guise of “traditional behavior.” Uh-huh. We need to back off the hysterics of religionism and look at the behaviors when we talk about this strange notion of “religion.” Saying you’re not religious or saying you are religious is irrelevant. What is it that you do that has resonance in the world of spirit?

  • caphillprof

    I think most Americans pretend to be religious; very few really are. But, as you say, they nevertheless will support somebody pretending to be religious over somebody who admits he/she is not religious.

  • Jason King

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