Democrats who place too much credence in those exit polls that suggest that American politics is being reshaped by voters who are charged up about “Moral Values”–as defined by social conservative opposition to same-sex marriages, the right to choose and out-of-control Super Bowl halftime shows–run the risk of making a mistake that could put them not on the wrong side of one election but, rather, on the wrong side of history.
After every election, the insta-pundits seek to explain the results with a one-size-fits-all analysis that often becomes the accepted wisdom of the political seasons that follow. The flavor of this fall moment is the suggestion that voters are dramatically more interested in “Moral Values” than in the past. This theory is based on the fact that, when exit pollsters asked voters which of seven issues was most important to them, 22 percent chose “Moral Values.” And 79 percent of voters who picked “Moral Values” backed President Bush. Hence the theory that a silent tide of “Moral-Values” voters–as opposed to shameless exploitation of the war on terror by the Bush team, vapid media coverage of the campaign and major missteps by the Democrats–tipped the election to the president.
“Moral values… propelled Bush,” announced MSNBC. “Contest turned on voters’ values, exit polls show,” announced the Indianapolis Star. “Values voters seek their reward in policy,” read a Knight-Ridder News Service headline. “‘God gap’ may force Dems to search souls,” declared the Arizona Republic.
This would all be quite compelling if there had been a genuine surge in “MoralValues” voting. In fact, socially-conservative voters have been citing some variation on “Moral Values” as their defining issue for years. For instance, in 1996 when then-President Bill Clinton was reelected by popular vote and Electoral College margins far wider than those accorded President Bush this year, 17 percent of voters selected “Family Values” as their top issue.
In 2000, exit polls did not offer a “Family Values” or “Moral Values” option on the issues list. But a 2000 survey for Emily’s List found that 26 percent of women who backed Republicans that year ranked “Moral Values” as their top issue, while 20 percent of men did–roughly the same rate as this year.
While the political and media chattering classes are quite absorbed with the fact that those who selected “Moral Values” as a top issue this year voted by a roughly 4-1 margin for Bush, they seemed to miss the fact that respondents who selected “Economy/Jobs” as their most important issue voted 80-18 against Bush.
Twenty-two percent of the voters included in the exit-poll sample selected “Moral Values” as their top issue while 20 percent selected “Economy/Jobs.” In a poll such as this one, with a one-percent margin of error up or down, there is no meaningful difference between the portion of the American public that selected “Moral Values” and the portion that selected “Economy/Jobs.” So why haven’t there been at least a few headlines suggesting that: “Economy/Jobs… propelled Kerry to near Electoral College tie with incumbent president” or “‘Jobs gap’ may force Republicans to search souls.”