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POLL TRACK

Religion And The Race

White Evangelicals & Catholics Favor McCain; Plus: Americans Are Warming Up To Immigration.

As both John McCain and Barack Obama attempt to reach out to religious voters, one new survey finds Americans conflicted about the role of religion in politics.

In Newsweek's latest poll, about one-third of respondents said they worry that religion has too much influence on public life in America, while one-quarter said its role is too limited. A 54 percent majority, however, said that having political leaders express their personal faith in God is positive for the country.

 

Nearly 7 in 10 respondents describe the U.S. as a Christian nation, while just over one-quarter disagree with that designation. And 32 percent of respondents acknowledged that it is very important to them that their president have "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ," with another 27 percent saying that it is somewhat important.

When asked whether they would vote for a presidential candidate from a particular religious background, Newsweek's respondents were most open to voting for a Jew; 84 percent confirmed that they would vote for a Jewish commander in chief. Nearly 7 in 10 reported that they would vote for a Mormon. But respondents were more wary of Muslims and atheists, with 48 percent saying they would not vote for a Muslim candidate and a 51 percent majority rejecting candidates who do not believe in God.

Respondents revealed very different perceptions of the two main political parties in a religious context. A 51 percent majority said the Republican Party is friendly toward religion, while a 38 percent plurality maintained that the Democratic Party is neutral on the matter. Some voters worry that the GOP is perhaps a bit too cozy with the religious right, however, as a 38 percent plurality expressed concern that Christian conservatives hold too much sway over the GOP.

 

Voters seem to view Obama as a more deeply religious candidate than McCain, with 63 percent saying they believe faith plays an important role in the Illinois senator's life, compared with 49 percent for his opponent. That said, the public still seems somewhat confused on Obama's religious background. Nearly 70 percent correctly reported that Obama is not a Muslim, but 12 percent still think that he adheres to Islam and 19 percent do not know what religion he follows.

His association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright continues to dog him, as well. A 32 percent plurality maintains that Obama agrees with at least some of the views of his former pastor, and while about two-thirds said that the Wright scandal has not affected their willingness to vote for Obama, 27 percent said his relationship with Wright makes them less likely to vote for the Democratic candidate in November.

Meanwhile, McCain's efforts at reaching out to the religious right do not seem to be paying off -- and could, in fact, be backfiring. Only 1 in 10 voters said that his association with Christian leaders made them more likely to vote for the Arizona senator, while twice as many said that they might actually be less likely to support him after his appeals to evangelical leaders. Overall, however, the God gap still seems to favor the GOP; McCain holds a significant lead over Obama among white evangelical voters -- 60 percent to 23 percent -- and white Catholics -- 49 percent to 33 percent.

There was more good news for McCain in the poll, which shows Obama's once formidable lead all but disappearing over the last several weeks. After holding a 15-percentage-point advantage over McCain in Newsweek's June polling, the Illinois senator now bests his opponent by a statistically insignificant 3 percentage points, 44 percent to 41 percent.

 

The Immigration Factor

Immigration may not be at the forefront of voters' minds in this election, but it is nonetheless on the candidates' minds as they court Hispanic voters through speeches, ads and tours across the country. At the heart of these efforts is the question of whether and how U.S. immigration policy should change. New data suggests Americans are opening up to the idea of more immigration and are seeing it as a good thing for the country.

In a new Gallup poll, 39 percent of respondents favored cutting back on immigration, down 6 percentage points from the same time last year. This marks only the fourth time in the poll since 1965 when this number dipped below 40 percent. Pollsters recorded an equal 39 percent saying the U.S. should maintain its level of immigration, up 4 points from last year. While only 18 percent favored an increase, that's the most in the survey's history after the number had been hovering in the mid-teens the past several years.

A majority of respondents -- 64 percent -- said immigration is a good thing for the country, up 4 points since last year. Furthermore, the number of people who indicated immigration is a bad thing is at its second-lowest point since 2001: only 3 in 10 said so. Not surprisingly, when pollsters asked the 502 Hispanics who participated in the survey this question, the outlook became even more positive. While 62 percent of whites said immigration is a good thing for the country, 7 in 10 Hispanic respondents said so.

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Americans' sentiment toward illegal immigrants' economic impact is more mixed, however. More than 6 in 10 of all respondents maintained a negative view of illegal immigrants, saying they "cost the taxpayers too much by using government services." On top of that, only 3 in 10 said they pay their fair share of taxes. Nearly 8 in 10, however, said illegal immigrants take the undesirable low-paying jobs, rather than the ones most American workers seek out.

When Hispanics were asked about illegal immigrants' place in the U.S. job market, though, the results were nearly reversed. Only 3 in 10 said they cost taxpayers too much money, and 65 percent said that they do pay their fair share of taxes. When asked what type of jobs illegal immigrants take, an overwhelming number of Hispanics -- nearly 9 in 10 -- said that they take the low-paying jobs. Only 9 percent said they're taking more desirable jobs.

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