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Perry vs. Huntsman on Evolution

Perry vs. Huntsman on Evolution

Republican Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman tweeted on Thursday "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy." This was no doubt intended to contrast him to Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry, who said this past week that evolution was "a theory that's out there…with gaps." Perry did not say that he didn't believe in the theory of evolution, but USA Today reports that he is on record as adhering to a theory of intelligent design, which is not evolution as most scientists understand it.

Where does the public come down on this? There are a number of different ways of asking the public about evolution. Back in 2007 Gallup asked the public this question:

Next, we'd like to ask about your views on two different explanations for the origin and development of life on earth. Do you think -- [ITEMS ROTATED] -- is -- [ROTATED: definitely true, probably true, probably false, (or) definitely false]?

A. Evolution, that is, the idea that human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life

We found in response that 53% of Americans believe that evolution (as defined in this particular question wording) is definitely or probably true, while 44% said evolution was definitely or probably not true.

Of importance to us here is the breakout among Republicans. We found in 2007 that a whopping 68% of Republicans did not believe in evolution when using this question wording. By contrast 61% of independents and 57% of Democrats did say they believed in evolution.

Another Gallup question on evolution is the following:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings -- [ROTATE 1-3/3-1: 1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, 2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process, 3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so]?

Here we find, in our last asking December 10-12:

  • Man developed, with God Guiding: 38%
  • Man developed, but God had no part in the process: 16%
  • God created man in present form: 40%

The two questions have rough agreement in estimating those who believe in evolution. Fifty-three percent said they agreed in the 2007 wording, while 54% agree with the "man developed" wording in this latest update on the 2010 wording.

There is, however, a difference in Republican sentiment using the two wordings. In the 2010 wording we find that 52% of Republicans say that God created humans in present form within the last 10,000 years. That's roughly the "non-evolution" position. So we can say that the percentage of Republicans who do not believe in evolution goes from 68% (using the 2007 wording) to 52% (using the 2010 wording). Still, and this is the key issue, it's a majority of Republicans who disbelieve in evolution in both cases.

Now, back to GOP candidate Perry. He didn't flat out say that he didn't believe in evolution in his latest utterances, but certainly adumbrated that conclusion. He said it was a theory with gaps. Which is actually not that controversial. Any scientist would say that evolution is a theory, just as gravity, general relativity, the Big Bang, and so forth are theories. Science works by proposing theories, and then seeing if there is data which support or reject them. Most scientists would say today that the data generally support the broad theory of evolution, and that there is not a sufficient mass of data to cause them to reject the theory. So Perry is not being very controversial by saying that evolution is a theory per se. But the implication of his comments -- coupled with previous comments -- is that he doubts that the theory is or will be sustained by the data. So it's probably fair to put him in the "skeptical" column when it comes to evolution.

In that sense, Perry is in sync with the majority of Republicans nationwide as we have seen. Jon Huntsman is less in sync with Republicans nationwide with his tweeted comment about belief in evolution.

When it comes to the general election and the general electorate, on the other hand, Huntsman is more in tune with the population. This episode in fact exemplifies the situation in which Republican candidates find themselves today. By pleasing the Republican base, they move further away from the general population of voters who will be crucial in November 2012. If they fail to please the Republican base, however, they run the risk of not getting the nomination in the first place, rendering all else moot as far as they are concerned.

Nothing in our data, by the way, suggests that evolution is, at this point, a major issue for Republicans or for the general population.

Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup senior scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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