'The 'Splainer: Making sense of exit polls

A poll worker assists voters casting their ballots in the U.S. Republican presidential primary at a polling place at Kilbourne Park Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina February 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A poll worker assists voters casting their ballots in the U.S. Republican presidential primary at a polling place at Kilbourne Park Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina February 20, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The ‘Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do”) is an occasional online feature in which RNS staff give you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) Evangelicals vote for Donald Trump. No, Ted Cruz. Wait. Aren't some Christians voting for Hillary Clinton, a Methodist, and Bernie Sanders, a Jew?

Why do exit polls draw such a confusing picture of religion’s role in the 2016 presidential race? Let us ‘Splain.

Q: How do exit polls work?

A: Exit polls are surveys designed and funded by the news media to help them report and explain the vote before the full results come in.

Six news organizations -- ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC and The Associated Press -- form the National Election Pool. Survey research directors consult to craft 15 to 20 questions and determine where and when the surveys will be conducted.

Then, New Jersey-based Edison Research executes the survey, sending thousands of interviewers to select polling places on election day. At each site, interviewers ask a random sample of voters to complete the three- to five-minute, self-administered questionnaire, said Joe Lenski, executive vice president of Edison. (The National Election Pool did not make anyone available for comment for this story.)

Media organizations use the results to announce their projected winners. The rest of the questions probe voters’ political leanings, the issues high on their minds and their demographic characteristics such as race, age, education and gender.

On Tuesday (March 8), there were exit polls in Mississippi and Michigan but not at the Idaho primary or the Hawaii caucus. On March 15, there will be surveys in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio.

Q: Do the polls ask about religion?

Yes. And no.

Lenski said the three most common religion questions that may appear are:

  • Are you (Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Other Christian, Jewish, Muslim, other or none)?
  • Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian? (Yes or No)
  • How often do you attend religious services? (More than once a week. Once a week. A few times a month. A few times a year. Never.)

RELATED STORY: Russell Moore: Don’t call me an ‘evangelical’

But rarely does the survey include more than one religion question.

Another question asks Republican voters whether shared religious beliefs mattered a great deal in their choice. This is how ABC News could say after Super Saturday (March 5), “Nearly 4 in 10 voters in Texas said shared religious beliefs mattered a great deal in their choice, with Cruz pulling in 4 in 10 of them, vs. fewer than 3 in 10 for Trump.”

Democrats, however, are asked about shared “values,” as if only Republicans were religious, noted Brian Kaylor, a Baptist author who writes for Ethics Daily and Churchnet. “And only Southern Democrats were asked about church attendance, so we have no comparison to the Midwest states where Sanders is winning.”

And unless the religious identification question is asked, no one knows about the "nones" preferences or how many Jews in Florida might choose Sanders on March 15th.

Q: Why so much attention to the “evangelical” vote?

A: The 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey found that white “born-again or evangelical” Protestants now account for 19 percent of American adults. They make up a core constituency of the Republican Party.

So the push has been strong to bring them to the polls.

The problem, say critics, is that there’s no universally agreed understanding of the terms “evangelical” or “born-again.”

RELATED STORY: Religion survey babble confuses 103% of readers. Here's why

"Catholics will say yes to ‘evangelical,' Muslims, even atheists,” said Mark Gray, senior researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Catholic organization. Gray wrote in his blog that he might just be a "cranky social scientist" but on the evangelical question "the data you get back is, for lack of a better term, crap" that leads to over-counting this subgroup.

For many people, "evangelical is subtext for Christian,” said Kaylor. “So it comes across like, ‘Are you a Christian, or not?’ Or, more to the point, ‘Are you a God-fearing American, or not?’”

Something else is driving the vote, not people’s evangelical identification, he said.

Writer Sarah Posner found that "Trumpvangelical'" voters' real preoccupations are "immigration, Islamophobia and guns."

Q: Which religion question is most useful?

A: Experts lean toward the question about frequency of church attendance.

People who attend religious services frequently are more active and engaged in other institutions -- such as voting, sociologists say.

But most self-identified religious believers don’t go to church weekly or often. Neither do many young people and many non-Christians whose religious or spiritual focus is more centered in personal practice than in congregational worship.

Another reason worship attendance is problematic for polling: People tend to exaggerate their attendance and give the socially acceptable answer, one that puts them in a “good Christian” light.

RELATED STORY: Poll: Americans stretch the truth on attending church

Q: What exit poll question would critics add?

A: Kaylor leans toward a question assessing how important religion is in someone’s life. "It captures the nuance of spirituality in religion in America, ranging from the highly devout to the people with no religious identity who still find spirituality very important," he said.

Princeton university sociologist Robert Wuthnow, who recently charged that pollsters have created an innacurate, shallow and misleading portrait of American religion, would rather see a combination of questions.

If the goal of exit poll questions on religion is to learn voters’ value system framework, Wuthnow said, he would drop the Protestant/Catholic/Jew question.

“As much as I hate it, I would probably keep the evangelical question. And I would keep church attendance because it is a measure of behavior and so is voting. But I would add a third question: How important is religion in your life? You need a salience measure in there,” Wuthnow said.

The latter would shed light not only on the "no religion” folks but also many of the nominally religious voters. "Or you might identify as with a religion," Wuthnow said, "and not care a whit about it in life or, in this case, when you vote."


(Cathy Lynn Grossman is senior national correspondent for RNS)



  1. Trump won Hawaii?> amazing since Hawaii is so labor-union happy. What
    he does with Mex vote in Calif will be interesting the higher it is. He
    employs many trade workers and their unions want a robust protected
    wage/closed border so some leverage in gaining wages can be attained. An unlimited worker force doesn’t bring higher wages. There’s a reason Ceaser Chavez hated illegal immigration.

  2. There is also a difference in accuracy whether it’s phone poll or internet. People believe checking a box is more private and will most likely not embellish.

    I grew up christian but am now atheist from years of study. But because of my roots I might have an automatic reaction to, ‘are you religious’ or ‘are you a christian’ or ‘how often do you attend services’. It still feels like my mother is watching and I would say what she wants to hear (although she’s been dead for 25 years).

    People over report their degree of religiosity and they grossly under report their disbelief. Admitting you have become a non believer can destroy families, cost you your job and friends, and you loose the church community around you completely (I just miss the homemade muffins).

    I believe that’s why evangelicals are voting for the non religious trump, he is more like them than the other repubs who admit they will use our govt to spread their beliefs as president.

  3. Hawaii Republicans are probably anti organized labor and most California Hispanic voters are probably Democrats.

    Cesar Chavez was no fan of “catch and deport” as it enables management. Paths to citizenship mean it’s more difficult to exploit immigrant laborers.

    The whole “lets deport them all” nonsense is rather pointless because:
    1. Short of authoritarian tactics which will annoy citizens and a descent into dictatorship, it is not even possible to do it.
    2. It perpetuates the very underground economy and exploitation that it is meant to remedy.

  4. I would say arrogant and hostile responses like yours are a good enough reason as any.

  5. I am a Baha’i, one of the 160,000 or so Baha’is in the USA (about 6 million of us worldwide). We are not to get involved in partisan politics, but we are very much encouraged to vote our consciences based upon our understandings of our sacred texts. This encouragement to vote is so that we contribute to our society. Note: We are never told to vote for specific people or parties – that is absolutely never done.

    If I were to be approached to complete a voting exit poll and asked “How many times a week do you attend religious services” that is nonsensical to us Baha’is because our calendar is one of 19 months with 19 days each (with 4 or 5 intercalary days to make 365 or 366 days in a solar calendar). Our religious observance as a community is once every Baha’i month, i.e. once per 19 days, nothing to do with a 7-day week (altho’ we still have 7-day weeks in our calendar – just community religious observances are not aligned with them).

    Perhaps other religions have…

  6. And it’s a whole lot easier to say “born again” or “Christian” than it is to come up with the truth, “Usually Pabst, but I’m happy with a Bud.”


Leave a Comment