Declaring for president, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told a crowd at Liberty University, the Virginia institution founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell: "Today roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting. They’re staying home. Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values."
At least since Ronald Reagan won the presidency, Republicans have viewed conservative Christians--specifically white evangelical Christians--as pivotal. And in the latest presidential race, in 2012, born-again Christians comprised 26 percent of all voters, most of them saying they voted for GOP nominee Mitt Romney, according to exit polls commissioned by news organizations.
By phone and email, Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute told us white evangelical Christians vote in equal or larger proportions than other Americans. Still, he said, the share of white Christian voters has declined. In 1992, he said, 75 percent of voters identified that way while in 2012, 57 percent did so. Key factors are increasing ethnic diversity and fewer young Americans affiliating with a religion, Jones said. He noted a fall 2014 institute study breaking down the religious denominations of Americans.
So, could it be that that these days, about half of born-again Christians aren’t voting?
Political scientists we reached wondered if Cruz was solely talking about voters in presidential elections--seems logical--and if he really meant to emphasize only white evangelical Protestants rather than all born-agains. That seems likely since many African Americans, who tend to vote Democratic, identify as born-again Christians, which loosely refers to individuals who have made or renewed a commitment to Jesus Christ as their personal savior.
We didn’t hear back from Cruz about his claim until we initially published this fact check. As we’ll detail, available voter surveys suggested born-again Christian turnouts of 58 percent to 63 percent in the 2012 elections--meaning 42 percent of such voters or fewer stayed home.
By email, Cruz campaign spokesman Rick Tyler said Cruz reached his "roughly half" conclusion starting from a 2007 survey by the non-partisan Pew Research Center indicating 26.3 percent of American adults identified as evangelical Protestants. The center conducted a "nationally representative sample of 35,556 adults living in continental United States telephone households" from May 8, 2007 to Aug. 13, 2007.
Apply that result to the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate of adults who were eligible to vote in 2012, 215 million, Tyler wrote, and it looks like nearly 57 million of citizens eligible to vote in 2012 belonged to evangelical Protestant churches. Separately, he pointed out, Pew cited voter exit polls taken for news organizations to conclude 23 percent of the nation’s November 2012 voters were white evangelical Protestants. Given that 129 million voters participated that fall, Tyler said, that means there were about 30 million evangelical Protestant voters, which would have been about half of the evangelical Protestants eligible to vote.
Next, we asked political scientists who had already weighed in on Cruz’s claim to assess Cruz’s methodology. Most said Cruz inappropriately mixed apples and oranges by applying the 2007 survey results to 2012 voter exit polls though a University of Texas professor, Daron Shaw, said, "I don’t know that the Cruz numbers are any less plausible" than estimates we’d earlier tracked down.
We also reached out to Pew researcher Gregory Smith, who declined to comment on Cruz’s methodology though he cautioned generally against reaching any conclusions by relying on different surveys asking different questions taken in different years.
Smith said, though, it looks like white evangelical Protestants comprised about as much of the electorate in 2012--23 percent, according to voter exit polls--as they did of the population (19 percent, according to Pew surveys taken in 2012).
Smith’s nudge: Given that 54 percent of eligible Americans voted for president in 2012, according to the U.S. Election Project overseen by Michael McDonald of the University of Florida, Smith said, it’s not implausible that about half of white born-again Christians didn’t vote. "Half of everybody didn’t vote," Smith said.
Earlier, we looked for independent analyses of born-again turnout.
American National Election Studies
Experts told us a good way to gauge turnout among born-again Christians is a national project that has surveyed people about voting every presidential election year since 1952. Next, Patricia Luevano of the American National Election Studies, overseen by researchers at the University of Michigan and Stanford University, told us by email that after the 2012 elections, some 83 percent of born-again Christians interviewed in person said they had voted with 78 percent of born-again Christians interviewed online saying so.
Then again, Luevano wrote: "It should be noted, of course, that this is self-report," her point being that individuals sometimes declare they voted even if they didn’t. Don’t run with those figures, Shaw told us, because "you cannot just put out a self-reported turnout figure without acknowledging that these numbers are significantly inflated."
We didn’t figure out how to accurately shrink those figures. Fortuitously, the national study does so for voters it interviews in person by checking public records, a lead investigator told us by phone. The upshot for 2012, Stanford University’s Simon Jackman said, is that 63 percent of born-again Christians voted. Overall, the survey drew on 2,054 in-person interviews with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, he said.
Some 18 percent of these born-again voters were African American, Jackman said by email. So we pressed Jackman to focus on those voters more likely to vote Republican. He said 68 percent of white born-again Christians voted (again, a conclusion based on checking what people said against voting records).
We identified a couple of other surveys per turnout by born-again Christians--and noticed an older study indicating half of born-again Christians voting.
Stephen Ansolabehere of Harvard University said by email that according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, 65 percent of 18,559 born-again Christians said they voted in the 2012 elections. Adjusting for some people saying they voted when they did not, he said, knocks the rate of voting born-again Christians to 58 percent to 59 percent.
John C. Green of the University of Akron said its voter surveys indicate 61 percent of born-again Christians voted in 2012. It’s worth noting, he emailed, "that it takes a lot of effort to mobilize all kinds of voters, including evangelicals. Getting to 61% took a huge effort."
Footnote: A Washington Post news story published after Cruz’s declaration pointed out the University of Akron study covering the 2000 election year. That year, researchers found, 50 percent of white evangelical voters cast ballots--as did half of black Protestants, half of Roman Catholics and 58 percent of mainline Protestants.
Cruz said: "Today roughly half of born-again Christians aren’t voting."
This may have been so in the 2000 presidential election year. But if we’re talking about voting for president lately, surveys suggest born-again Christian turnouts of 58 percent to 63 percent in 2012--meaning 42 percent of voters or fewer stayed home.
We rate this statement, essentially a reminder that not all Americans vote, Mostly False.
MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.
UPDATE, 11:39 a.m., March 31, 2015: After we published this fact check, Cruz's campaign offered backup information for his claim. We've amended our fact check to include this information and related comments. These changes did not affect our rating of the statement.