Social and intellectual conventions are supposed to settle slowly,
but conventional wisdom can congeal instantly and without much wisdom. That's
what has happened over the past several weeks with a prevailing interpretation
of this year's presidential election -- the great "moral values" theory.
The Big Political Idea of the 2004 election goes something like this:
"Moral values" turned out to be the most important issue to voters, not the
economy or the Iraq war or terrorism. President Bush won because a legion of
"values voters" -- whose growing numbers escaped the attention of an
inattentive media -- preferred him. The Democrats are doomed until they can
woo the voters who belong to this new political force.
It's a neat theory -- but wrong. How it came to be regarded as the real
story of George W. Bush's victory is a fascinating and sobering example of
journalism's quest for freshness and surprise.
Here's the simple fact: The evidence that moral values determined the
election rests on a single dodgy exit-poll question. And it's not at all clear
that more voters are preoccupied with moral values now than were fretting
about "family values" on election day 1996, when exit pollsters included that
phrase in a question about "priorities for the new administration." But in the
often arid and repetitive arena of American political ideas, fun new
contestants can be hard to disqualify. The myth of the moral values election
is proving hard to snuff out.
The mantra was in full hum on election night. Television commentators
were understandably struck by the results of the question asked of almost 7,
000 voters as they left their polling places: "Which one issue mattered most
in deciding how you voted for president?" The most cited issue on the list of
seven options offered to those surveyed was "moral values" at 22 percent; 80
percent of these voters went for President Bush, 18 percent for Democratic
nominee John Kerry. "Economy/jobs" came next on the list at 20 percent,
followed by terrorism (19 percent), Iraq (15 percent) and then health care,
taxes and education in single digits.
Brian Healy was the CBS News producer covering the exit polls, something
he has done in many elections. He recalled that everyone was surprised that
moral values topped the list as the numbers came in, but it wasn't until about
4 a.m. that someone quite innocently asked, "What exactly are 'moral values'?"
Too late. The story line was already set. And the surprise nature of the
moral values result boosted its allure for the commentariat. When the
newspapers could finally write definitive headlines, the notion that moral
values were a synonym for various conservative positions became a given --
as did its decisive effect on the outcome of the contest. "Faith, Values
Fueled Win," reported the Chicago Tribune. " "Moral Values Decide Election,"
the Tri-Valley Herald in Northern California told its online readers.
From the modest experiment of one exit-poll question, a Unified Theory of
Election 2004 was hatched. Pundits began to spread the word.
Some reporters were even apologetic for missing the big story. "Somewhere
along the line, all of us missed this moral values thing," said CNN's Candy
Crowley in a speech to a Florida audience.
Political reporters may have many things to atone for, but missing "the
moral values thing" is not one of them. Plenty of commentators have tried to
spike this dogma (including me in one of my columns), but it has proved a
stubborn adversary. Let's take another swing at it.
Yes, the issues boiled down into the code phrase "moral values" were a
factor in this election. There are voters passionately concerned with same-sex
marriage and abortion, and an overwhelming number of them supported Bush. It's
also clear that same-sex marriage ballot initiatives energized these voters,
as did Republican efforts to get out that vote.
But the size and impact of that cohort has been exaggerated. And the
impact of other issues (war, terrorism) and leadership qualities was minimized.
That's mostly because of oddities in the exit poll, but also because this Big
Political Idea conforms to what some Republican strategists are peddling (and
their interpretation has the added credibility that winners get in writing
history). It also fits neatly the red/blue, "two Americas" school of thought,
which projects the country as deeply divided and at war over cultural issues.
If the national exit poll had been worded differently, moral values would
not have been the top issue and this argument wouldn't be happening. If one of
the choices on the exit-poll list combined "terrorism" and "Iraq," it probably
would have been the top concern and nobody would be talking about moral values.
And, most important, the definition of moral values is in the eye of the
evaluator. Most voters probably did think moral values meant being against
same-sex marriage, stem-cell research and late-term abortion; but others
undoubtedly thought it meant helping poor people or not invading Iraq. For
some, moral values may have referred to character attributes of the candidates.
It is a bit of a Rorschach test. Moral values are not a clear political issue
to be set next to taxes or terrorism; it's public-opinion apples and oranges.
Now, to the hard question: Are there more values voters than there used
In 2000, the consortium that ran the national exit poll did not list
"moral values" as an option on their issues menu. At that time, it would have
been seen as a question about Bill and Monica, and so pretty useless. So it's
hard to know whether the slice of the electorate concerned with such matters
has grown during Bush's term.
We do know that in the 1996 question about the next administration's
priorities, "family values" was tops for 17 percent (behind the winner,
"health of the economy," at 21 percent), and that group largely went for Bob
Dole. So you could argue that the 17 percent whose top worry was family values
and went heavily Republican turned into 22 percent worried about moral values
in 2004. That's a slight shift, but hardly a cultural tsunami.
Despite the best efforts of myth-busters, the moral values doctrine has
morphed from a simple poll-finding to gospel truth. This contaminated strain
of punditry needs to be eradicated before it spreads further.
Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, where he writes an online column, "Against the Grain." This commentary appeared originally in the Washington Post.
© 2004 San Francisco Chronicle