Surprising number of Americans wouldn’t vote for Muslim to be president

Just exactly who can be president?

Republican contender Ben Carson sparked that debate when he said on NBC’s Meet the Press that he “absolutely would not agree” with electing a Muslim as president.

On that question, Americans are divided.

In a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll, most of those surveyed don’t think it’s a realistic possibility, at least at the moment. By 53%-39%, they say a Muslim couldn’t be elected.

Even so, by 49%-40% they said they themselves would vote for a qualified Muslim.

What about other groundbreaking categories?

• By 53%-40%, they would vote for a qualified atheist. Notably, resistance to an atheist as president is as strong as resistance to a Muslim.

• By 93%-3%, they would vote for a qualified Catholic. The 2016 field includes several Catholics, among them Republicans Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio, and Democrat Martin O’Malley.

• By 95%-4%, they would vote for a qualified woman. That’s presumably good news for Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Carly Fiorina.

The nationwide poll of 1,000 likely voters, taken by phone from Thursday through Monday, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Democrats are much more likely to say they would vote a Muslim than Republicans are, 63% compared with 26%. But there is only a small partisan difference on openness to voting for a woman: 97% of Democrats and 92% of Republicans say they would.

“I would vote for anybody that is going to be in the best interest of the country,” says Tyler Sutherland, 24, a U.S. Army officer based in Manhattan, Kan., who was among those surveyed. “I don’t care what religion they are, what race they are, what they align with, as long as I think they’re doing the right thing.”

But Nina Neece, 56, of Turlock, Calif., says she wouldn’t vote for a Muslim and says she believes President Obama is a Muslim; he is in fact a Christian.

“This country was founded on Christian values and it needs to stay that way,” she said in a follow-up interview. “The Muslims have their country. They can stay where they’re at. They don’t need to be pushing it down our throat.”