Courting Christians: How Political Candidates Prime Religious Considerations in Campaign Ads
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution formally separated church and state in United States more than 200 years ago, yet religion continues to play an outsized role in American politics. In recent history, “religious traditionalists” have often aligned with the Republican Party, whose platforms are intended to resonate with religious-minded voters on social issues. The 2012 election is no exception, with same-sex marriage and abortion prominent in the ongoing debate, and potential voters’ religious convictions often drive decisions on the candidates to support.
A 2012 study from Louisiana State University published in The Journal of Politics, “Courting Christians: How Political Candidates Prime Religious Considerations in Campaign Ads,” investigated the extent to which religious messages embedded in a political campaign affects a voter’s opinion of the candidate. Researchers administered a pre-test measuring traditional religious attitudes to 562 participants, and then randomly assigned them to one of four experimental conditions: high or low levels of information from two Senate campaigns, and high or low levels of religious cues embedded in the candidates’ TV advertisements.
Key study findings include:
- When religious cues are present in the advertisement, but additional secular information about the candidate is not, the “religious traditionalism” of respondents (as measured by variety of survey questions), “is a strong predictor of candidate preference.”
- Traditional responses are stronger when political information about the candidate is absent. “Exposing the participant to information about the candidate reduces the effect of religious code words and symbols embedded within campaign advertisements.”
- “Religion appears more consequential among less informed voters primed with religious cues… candidates will be more effective in activating traditionalism mong voters possessing less information.”
- “Even among (respondents) who adhere to strict and traditional interpretations of biblical doctrine, these considerations are attenuated in the presence of secular information.”
The authors concluded that while an advertisement’s religious cues may focus attention on the candidate’s religious credentials, the more a voter knows about a candidate, the less salient this messaging becomes. Further research is suggested to ascertain the “consequences of implicit versus explicit religious appeals” in political campaigns.
Tags: religion, cognition
Read the issue-related Chippewa Herald article titled "Aggressive Ads Keep Abortion in Campaign Spotlight ."
- What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover issues relating to the role of religion in campaign ads?
Read the full study titled “Courting Christians: How Political Candidates Prime Religious Considerations in Campaign Ads.”
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?