How Many Highly Religious Conservative Republicans Are There?

Frank Newport, PhD is the Editor-in-Chief of Gallup.
Frank Newport, PhD is the Editor-in-Chief of Gallup.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz chose a conservative, evangelical Christian university as the setting for his announcement that he was running for president. This underscored his apparent strategic decision to focus relentlessly on the conservative, highly religious segment of his party, both in terms of attempting to become their candidate of preference, and also in terms of maximizing their turnout in the 2016 primary elections.

The Republican Party in general has a disproportionate percentage of conservative and highly religious Americans in its ranks, so Cruz's strategy would appear to make numerical sense -- as it would for other conservative politicians, like Mike Huckabee or Scott Walker, who may aim for the same target audience. On the other hand, potential candidates like Jeb Bush or Chris Christie would play more to Republican voters who are in the moderate and perhaps less religious space of their party. All of which raises the question: Exactly how big are these various segments of the Republican Party?

We can provide estimates by looking at the cross between ideology and religiosity among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, based on interviews conducted with 17,845 Republicans as part of Gallup Daily tracking so far this year.

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These data make it clear how much Republicans in general skew both religious and conservative. Overall, 50% of Republicans are highly religious, above the national average of 40%, and 61% are conservative -- again, way above the national average of 35%. But not all highly religious Republicans are conservative and vice versa. In fact, the data show that a little more than one-third of Republicans can be classified as both conservative and highly religious. Thus, the pure segment of Republicans who meet both conservative and highly religious criteria is not the majority. Cruz would argue that his goal is to maximize the turnout of this group. And it's reasonable that in some primary and caucus states, the base of conservative and highly religious Republicans could outperform their representation in the overall GOP population. Still, highly religious conservatives constitute a minority of the Republican Party.

Many other Republicans, as noted, lean in either the conservative or highly religious direction. For example, 26% of Republicans are not highly religious but are conservative, while another 14% of Republicans are highly religious but not conservative. Together, these segments represent another big chunk of the Republican universe -- about 40%. It will remain to be seen how much appeal Cruz or one of the other more conservative and religious GOP candidates might have to highly religious Republicans who are moderate or liberal ideologically, or to conservatives who are either moderately or not at all religious.

Although Barack Obama won't be running in the 2016 election, Republican candidates will clearly use him as a symbol of what they are running against, particularly as manifested in his eponymous healthcare act. Overall, few Republicans approve of Obama's job performance, but within the six segments, ideology is the key driver of the variation that does exist.

Conservatives' approval of Obama is in the single digits, regardless of religiosity, while 21% to 24% of moderate/liberals approve, with religiosity having little apparent impact on these attitudes.

Obama job approval rating among Republican segments, Jan 2 - March 26, 2015.
Obama job approval rating among Republican segments, Jan 2 - March 26, 2015. | (Gallup/2015)

Religiosity is related to age, and the data show that the more a candidate narrows his or her focus down to highly religious and conservative Republicans, the more that candidate will be talking to an older audience. Ideology is also related to age, with conservatives significantly older than moderate/liberals.

Thus, we see that 29% of the highly religious conservative segment is 65 years or older, while only 12% are under 30. Among nonreligious moderate/liberal Republicans, on the other hand, 30% are in the younger group with only 11% in the older group. This older skew among those who are highly religious and conservative can be a positive for candidates targeting these groups, since older voters are almost always going to be more highly represented among actual voters than their underlying proportion of the population would suggest.

Age distribution among Republican segments, Jan 2 - March 26, 2015.
Age distribution among Republican segments, Jan 2 - March 26, 2015. | (Gallup/2015)

I've been talking here about the distribution of these variables within the Republican population, given that any potential Republican nominee has to first win his or her party's nod before moving onto the national stage. But we do know that outside of the Republican Party, the highly religious, conservative segment is very small. As one example, only 6% of all non-Hispanic whites -- the clearest target for a Republican candidate -- who do not identify with or lean toward the Republican Party are conservative and highly religious. This underscores the primary to general election pivot problem that will face any Republican nominee. A candidate like Cruz might dream of winning the nomination by motivating a core group of highly religious conservatives in the primaries, but he is not going to have many more of that species to appeal to when it comes to the general election. Cruz has pointed out that the last two Republican candidates who were more moderate to begin with lost the general election (that would be Mitt Romney and John McCain). He assumes this means a more conservative (and presumably more religious) Republican candidate might have a better chance in the general election, although the validity of that prediction is difficult to document.

Dr. Frank Newport is the Editor-in-Chief of Gallup and writes the column, "Polling Matters." Copyright © 2013 Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved. The content is used with permission; however, Gallup retains all rights of republication.

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