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Understanding the Role of Religious Appeals in Political Communication

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Principal Investigator(s):

Christopher Weber
University of Arizona
Home page:

Matthew Thornton
Louisiana State University

Sample size: 550
Field period: 5/18/2010-9/8/2010


There has been a scarcity of work documenting the consequences of religion in political campaign ads. This study relies on a 2 (Religious Cues: Present, Absent) x 2 (Prior Information: Present, Absent) between-subjects design to examine whether religious cues prime religious traditionalism. We argue that religious primes should activate religious traditionalism. We also vary the respondent’s information environment to explore whether secular information moderates this priming effect. We find strong evidence suggesting that religious traditionalism is activated by religious cues in political messages. However, this effect is attenuated in the presence of secular information.


(1) Religious cues should activate religious traditionalism. We call this “The Priming Hypothesis.”

(2) This priming effect should be reduced when participants are provided with secular information. We call this the “Information Hypothesis.”

Experimental Manipulation:

The study follows a 2 (Religious Cues: Present, Absent) x 2 (Prior Information: Present, Absent) between-subjects factorial design. We vary whether religious cues are included in a Saxby Chambliss campaign advertisement (specifically, the “Values” ad). We also vary whether participants receive information about Saxby Chambliss and his public policy positions.

Key Dependent Variables:

The posttest questions include a variety of questions intended to assess the participant’s reaction to Chambliss. Specifically, we include a general evaluation question, trait evaluations, vote choice, and political and religious proximity questions.

Summary of Findings:

The study confirmed our theoretical expectations. In line with “The Priming Hypothesis,” we find that religious cues activate religious traditionalism; religious traditionalism is more aligned with candidate evaluation in the religious cue condition. We also find evidence supporting “The Information Hypothesis.” Specifically, the religious priming effect is attenuated among participants who are provided with secular information.


Weber, Christopher and Matthew Thornton. (2012). "Courting Christians: How Political Candidates Prime Religious Considerations in Campaign Ads." Journal of Politics, 74 (2): 400-413. Link to Paper

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