A Reality Check on the Values Voter

By - Dec 1st, 2004 02:52 pm
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By Paul McLeary

In the last few weeks, there has been much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments among the “reality-based community” about the great new albatross supposedly hanging around the Democratic party’s neck: The Values Voter. As with so many other dumbed-down media constructions (think “Security Mom” or “Nascar Dad”), the sheer intellectual laziness and utter sophistry of the media’s lunging groupthink is here on full display. While it would be foolish to claim that that there isn’t a core group of socially conservative Americans who vote with one hand placed firmly on their Bible, it’s another thing entirely to promote this vocal minority into the stratosphere of the major voting blocs.

The history of this supposedly new group can be traced back to a single question in the Election Day exit poll. Question J asked: “Which ONE issue mattered most in deciding how you voted for president?” The answers ran as follows: Education, four percent; Taxes, five percent; Health Care, eight percent; Iraq, 15 percent; Terrorism, 19 percent; Economy and Jobs, 20 percent and the kicker, Moral Values, 22 percent. Yes, moral values had the highest ranking, but just what does it mean to say that people hold moral values to be important? Are they against lying? Cheating? Liberal Hollywood? Adultery? War?

Running the numbers.What are we asking when we ask about moral values? Given the exit poll’s muddy terminology, it would probably be helpful if we combine the poll’s choices in a more logical way – grouping them into categories. After all, education, taxes, etc. are incredibly specific answers, while moral values allows for quite a bit of wiggle room in its interpretation. For example, grouping “war issues” (Iraq and terrorism) together, we find that 34 percent of voters felt they were the most important issues facing the country, while economic issues (economy and jobs, taxes, health care) clocks in at 33 percent. When looked at this way, moral values bring up the rear at 22 percent.

It seems that despite all the post-election revisionism, the issue Americans are still most concerned about is the war and the West’s fight against violent Islamic fundamentalism. And there’s plenty more where that came from. Remember those weepy Democrats saying that it was gay marriage that sunk Kerry’s chances? Turns out, that wasn’t quite right, either. As Alan Abramowitz over at the Donkey Rising blog reported, “In 11 states with gay marriage referenda on the ballot, the president increased his share of the vote from an average of 55.4 percent in 2000 to an average of 58.0 percent in 2004 – an improvement of 2.6 percentage points. However, in the rest of the country, the president increased his share of the vote from an average of 48.1 percent in 2000 to an average of 51.0 percent in 2004 – an improvement of 2.9 percentage points.” Digging even deeper, we find that voters who cited moral issues as most important gave their votes overwhelmingly to Bush (80 percent to 18 percent), and states where voters saw moral issues as important were far more likely to go red. But these differences were no greater in 2004 than in 2000.

Not convinced? Nationally, 49 percent of voters said they trusted Bush but not Kerry to handle terrorism, while only 31 percent trusted Kerry but not Bush. That 18 point gap is significant, outpacing any small gain Bush made with religious voters, and was obviously enough to put him over the top. It turns out that the conventional wisdom before the election – that the race would be decided on the terror issue – was right. And while the “values” issue is doubtless important, the obviously rattled voices calling for Democrats to now “speak the language of faith” need to look at the reality of the numbers, rather than trying to play to an electoral shift that doesn’t exist.

“Understanding” is a trap.Michael Tomasky at the liberal-minded American Prospect, unfortunately, does just this. In a piece written a week after the election, he makes some salient points, primarily in his contention that Christian voters are not a monolithic entity. By dint of being such a large group, we can find within their ranks a plurality of competing ideas of the good. But Tomasky also falls into the less attractive liberal trap of always trying to reach out to those who disagree with him: “The Democratic Party should invest money in talking to – not polling or focus-grouping; talking to – these [religious] voters, learning the true extent to which they feel alienated from the party, finding out how they think about their religious and political selves, how they weigh their own interpretations of the Scripture with regard to gay rights on the one hand and helping people in poverty on the other.”

Sigh. The problem here is that Tomasky (and others) seem to write this stuff by rote. As we’ve seen, the president’s support among the religious-minded only improved slightly in 2004 over 2000, while his support among urban voters, Latinos and women increased by as much as ten points. This is the real story behind the election, and one can point to the public’s nervousness over a possible Kerry stewardship of the war on terror as the factor which pushed these groups to vote for the president in larger numbers. Another point the left seems to forget is that the president won in a squeaker, 51-48. It’s not like we’re talking about a Mondale-esque blowout here. And despite the rise of Evangelicals as a bloc of voters, the country isn’t yet in danger of falling completely under their sway.

Don’t underestimate the “anti-Kerry” factor.The larger point here is that the Democratic Party needs to take stock of its strengths. While making inroads into the religious vote (whatever that may be) would be nice, it’s hardly necessary for the party to remain a force in national politics. The United States is a religious country, but we are not one ruled by religion. Those on the left need to take a step back and look at the facts – Kerry didn’t lose because most Americans want a born-again Christian in the White House, he lost because most Americans simply didn’t want him in the White House.

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