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.”

And what about a new issue on the list: Iraq? Fifteen percent of those surveyed chose Iraq as their top issue–far more than selected “Education,” “Health Care” or the once-significant “Taxes.” Among the roughly one in seven voters who picked “Iraq” as their top issue, the split was 73-26 for Kerry. Doesn’t it seem logical, since Iraq has been such a high-profile issue, that a few pundits might have noted that, among Americans who are most charged up about the war, Kerry was a 3-1 favorite.

The point here is not to suggest that Democrats, Republicans or any other political players should neglect the fact that roughly one in five voters cite “Moral Values” as their top election issue. Rather, the point that needs making is that this is nothing new. And if Democrats seek to downplay their support for gay rights and other socially progressive stances, they won’t just be wasting their time. They will be alienating a substantial portion of their base– something the Republicans would never do–and they will be putting themselves on the wrong side of historical trends that will ultimately make support for gay rights the winning stance.

It is important to go beyond the post-election spin to examine just exactly who these “Moral Values” voters are. Of the four regions of the country, “Moral Values” ranked highest on the issue list in the south, where voters who cited it as their top concern broke 89-10 for Bush. Yet, aside from Florida–the one state in the region where “Moral Values” ranked second on the issue list–there were no major battleground states in the south.

If respondents from southern states where Democrats are unlikely to seriously compete in the near future are removed from the pool of those surveyed, “Moral Values” becomes a far less significant factor in deciding the direction of the election.

In the East, for instance, “Moral Values” ranked fourth on the list of top issues–behind “Iraq,” “Economy/Jobs” and “Terrorism.” In the West, “moral values” was in a statistical tie with “Iraq” as the top issue. In the critical Midwestern battleground state of Ohio, “Economy/Jobs” ranked above “Moral Values.” The same was true in Michigan, and Pennsylvania–where “Moral Values” ranked fourth behind “Economy/Jobs,” “Iraq” and “Terrorism.”

Let’s be clear, if the Democratic Party wants to get on the good side of the crowd that always ranks “Moral Values” or some variation on that term as its top issue, that will require adjusting Democratic positions to be more in tune with those of the old Confederacy. (It is notable that every state that fought to defend the institution of slavery in the Civil War voted for Bush, while the vast majority of states that sided in that distant struggle with the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, voted for Kerry.)

And what are the moral values of the old Confederacy? Well, there is no question that gays rights stances are a tough sell in places like Mississippi and Alabama. But last week in Alabama, voters appear to have narrowly turned down a proposal to remove “Jim Crow” segregationist language from their state Constitution. So it’s not just gay rights that America’s hotbed of “Moral Values” voting rejects.

Before Democrats allow a cursory reading of the exit polls to send them on a long march away from socially progressive stances, they might want to ask themselves: Exactly how far backward do they want to go? Just back to the point where they abandon a commitment to equal justice for gays and lesbians? Or do they really want to be in line with voters who support keeping “separate-but-equal” language in the law books?

Democrats can spend the next four years trying to make themselves acceptable to the social-conservative voters who, election after election, cite “Moral Values” as their top issue. But it won’t win them Alabama. And it almost certainly will turn off voters in other regions of the country—particularly under-30 voters who consistently support gay rights in exit polls and other surveys, and who are likely to carry that stance with them as they become more significant players in the political process.

The bottom line is this: Democrats can either waste four years developing a doomed outreach to voters for whom “Moral Values” means denying rights to others, or they can work on getting more in tune with the vast majority of voters who rank other issues as their top priorities.

If Democrats fight for Alabama, they will lose. If they fight for America, they at least have a chance of winning.