November 23, 2004,
What does it mean that "moral values" emerged as the single most important issue in this election?
David Brooks's post-election column in the New York Times was called "The Values-Vote Myth." "Much of the misinterpretation of this election derives from a poorly worded question in the exit polls. When asked about the issue that most influenced their vote, voters were given the option of saying 'moral values.' But that phrase can mean anything or nothing. Who doesn't vote on moral values? If you ask an inept question, you get a misleading result." He argues this election was a referendum on terrorism: "The fact is that if you think we are safer now, you probably voted for Bush. If you think we are less safe, you probably voted for Kerry. That's policy, not fundamentalism."
A New York Times news story on Nov. 6 struck a similar note, saying,
Some Democrats and independent pollsters say these assumptions are largely based on a flawed polling question that has skewed the results to make it seem as if cultural matters had a more powerful effect than they actually did. . .Gary Langer, director of polling for ABC News, one of the sponsors of the poll, said a major flaw in the question is that 'moral values' is not the same sort of specific issue that taxes or Iraq are. "Health care is an issue, terrorism is an issue, moral values is much more of a personal characteristic..." Langer and others said "moral values" became a sort of "catch-all" for Mr. Bush's voters. . .
On the same day, religion columnist Peter Steinfels noted that "hardly had the exit polls shown that 22 percent of the voters named 'moral values' as the issue mattering most in their choice for president when Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research center, called the conclusion misleading" because "it was an ambiguous, appealing and catchall phrase."
But Steinfels also had the good sense to point out that "whatever this large chunk of voters may have in mind by moral values, those things need to be identified and addressed, not simply steamrolled over."
To its everlasting credit, the Pew Research Center has just released a new poll, "Moral Values: How Important?," that should settle this debate definitively. Pew asked respondents to select from the same seven-issue list that exit pollsters had given, and then asked those who chose "moral values" to explain what the term meant.
In the Pew poll, like the exit poll, moral values emerged as the single most important issue, named by 27 percent of the electorate, compared to 22 percent for Iraq, 21 percent for the economy/jobs, and 14 percent for terrorism.
Voters who cared most about Iraq were 34 percent of Kerry voters but just 11 percent of Bush voters. Terrorism voters constituted 24 percent of Bush voters but 3 percent of Kerry voters. David Brooks is just plain wrong: Add up the Bush voters who picked either Iraq or terrorism as their main issue and you get to only 35 percent of the Bush vote (compared to 44 percent who picked moral values). Only 4 percent of Bush voters picked taxes as their main issue. Which means that even if you create a "catch-all" category consisting of the other main GOP issues Iraq/terrorism and taxes you get to just 39 percent of Bush voters. "Moral values" is still the single most important element of the GOP coalition, at least in terms of what voters say matters to them.
But what do the voters mean by "moral values?" Here too the Pew poll makes it clear that voters were not at all confused by what they meant.
When voters who chose moral values as their most important issue were asked "what comes to mind when you think about 'moral values,'" 44 percent named specific issues (29 percent said gay marriage, 32 percent said either abortion or stem cells). Eighteen percent said something like "God, the Bible, or religion," and 17 percent said some version of "traditional values" such as "family values," "right versus wrong," living by a "moral code," or a "general decline in morality." About 23 percent gave some response that indicated a reference to the candidates' personal moral qualities. All told, 79 percent of values voters agreed that the phrase referred either to social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, or to traditional values generally, or to religion. (The numbers add up to slightly more than 100 percent because voters could list up to two items.)
Voters who did not choose "moral values" were also asked what they thought the phrase meant, and though their pattern of responses varied from the values voters (12 percent gave negative responses such as, it's a "wedge" issue used against Democrats), some 71 percent also chose either "traditional values," social issues, or religion as its core meaning.
Pew also asked voters what mattered as an open-ended question (rather than asking them to choose from a fixed list of issues). Asked this way, Iraq emerged as the most important issue in the election with 25 percent of voters spontaneously saying that this issue mattered most. (They went overwhelmingly for Kerry.) "Moral values" came in second with 14 percent of voters. Terrorism dropped to 9 percent of the electorate. The economy/jobs dropped to 12 percent. Taxes were mentioned by just 1 percent of voters as an issue.
But when you look at Bush voters the same basic pattern found on the "fixed list" emerges: "Moral values" remains the most important issue. Twenty-seven percent of Bush voters named moral values as their top issue, compared to 11 percent who picked Iraq and 17 percent who named terrorism (and 2 percent who named taxes).
Referring to guns, abortion, and gay marriage, Harold Ickes admitted to the New York Times the obvious: "These are very, very big issues. They really, really motivate people."
Iraq and terrorism were part of the Bush victory. But without the values voters, even a wartime GOP president doesn't have a prayer.
Maggie Gallagher is president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.