Those on the political left, for example, might like the Pope less if they learned he said, “unborn fetuses are sacred and must be protected.” Conversely, those in the political right might view him less favorably if they knew he recently said, “Governments should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.”
To find out, we conducted an experiment. We randomly assigned students to one of three versions of our questions about the Pope. The first version was typical of media polls, asking merely, “What is your view of the Pope?” In the second and third versions, before posing that question, students were presented with one or the other of those two political statements that he’s expressed.
Surprisingly, reading either statement didn’t do much to influence students’ opinions. Pope Francis’ favorability barely moved, ranging from 83% after hearing about inequality to 87% after hearing about unborn fetuses, with 84% favorable without reading anything at all.
Answer Options Matter
Often, media polls don’t tell respondents that it is acceptable to not have an opinion about a topic. That’s what we did in the results we described above. However, many times people don’t really have an opinion, and when students were given that answer option in three other versions of our questions about the Pope, it significantly reduced his favorability. Favorability, though, declined across the board, not in any particular version of the question.
In fact, when given the chance to say it, about one-third of students say they don’t have an opinion about the Pope. Compared to being “forced to answer” the question, his favorability now ranged from just 57% to 63%, instead of from 83%-87%. Unfavorable attitudes declined to less than 10% in all three versions, but the reduced negative attitudes were clearly proportionally much smaller.
Why are State students more likely to report holding a favorable than unfavorable view of Pope Francis when they are pressed to answer the question? Most likely, we think that if students don’t care, answering positively makes the respondent feel better about themselves than saying something negative about such a publicly adored figure. Who wants to hate on the Pope?
Maybe Issues Do Matter?
Another approach to seeing how issues matter is to examine how agreeing or disagreeing with the Pope’s statements about politics, and not just exposure to them, affects opinions. We found that 74% of students agreed with his statement about inequality, but just 51% agreed with his views about fetuses.
Although fewer agree with the latter view, greater disagreement isn’t associated with holding a less favorable view of the Pope. Instead, disagreeing with the Pope’s statement about inequality is highly correlated with holding a less favorable view of him.
How do State Attitudes compare Nationally?
Gallup released a poll in July 2015 regarding American’s favorability of Pope Francis. Their results show that his favorability has declined since their previous poll in February of 2015, but this decrease is the result of an increase in the percentage of American’s who do not have an opinion on Pope Francis. Moreover, the Pope is still more likely to be viewed as favorable than unfavorable among Americans even with option of no opinion.
Alternatively, another poll produced in October 2015 by Marist Poll, shows that the Pope’s favorability has increased among Catholics and other American’s since his visit to the United States in September 2015. 90% of Catholics say they now favor the Pope and 74% among all American’s say they now favor the Pope, this number up form 58%. Respondents were also asked if they agreed with the Pope on various statements he made and these results also show that his favorability has increased.
These are the results for this semester’s first “Flash Poll” about the Pope and related issues (October 5-6, 2015). The survey was administered over the internet to a random sample of 3,500 NCSU undergraduates, generating a 27% response rate for the first question, and a 24% response rate by the time our the last question was asked, because some respondents dod not complete the entire survey. Sampling error is higher than +/-3.3% for the first question because only half received one version of it. Sampling error is also higher for results that are reported for sub-groups. In addition to sampling error, other forms of error occur in surveys, such as confusion about question wording or the order of questions, but these are not precisely quantifiable. We do not apply post-stratification sample weights to adjust for possible demographic imbalances in our sample because we did not measure known population characteristics such as students’ year in school, race or gender.
Click here to see the full set of results: Toplines Pope Report