Elections don’t end on Election Day. The Presidential vote has just been finalized and John Kerry picked up another 500,000 votes to lose to President Bush by almost exactly 3 million. (Yeah, I know, he does better when he’s not campaigning.)
Meanwhile, Edison Media and Mitofsky International, the folks who brought you The National Exit Polls have re-examined and rebalanced and, while offering recommendations for improvements, ratified the accuracy of their results–other than the Presidency.
But forget their bad call for Kerry. If the Exit Polls did nothing more than delude liberals into believing that their candidate was going to win, then not much harm done. Many liberals had already fooled themselves into believing that almost any Democrat could defeat a “vulnerable” Bush, so how big a step is it to believe that Kerry actually did so? (Given the Republican mischief in Ohio, there are many who still believe that he did.)
The actual polls decided the Presidential Race, but the National Exit Polls established the meaning of the election. The “liberal” American media used the polls—exit and actual--to twist the meaning of the election into being a mandate for “Moral Values”. This view has been somewhat revised. Analysts observed that while 22% of the electorate did select “Moral Values” as their key issue, economic issues were disaggregated while moral issues weren’t. 20% said the “Economy” was their most important issue while 19% said “Terrorism”. Few have bothered to point out that all were within the margin of +/-3% error, so, in reality, they are tied for most important issue. The Moral Values question wasn’t asked in 2000, so we don’t even know whether the issue is increasing in importance.
Unfortunately, there was a second message that came out of the election, and this one hasn’t been re-examined. Panel discussions on “Meet the Press” and “This Week”, countless op-ed columns, and every cable news show have all pounded out the same message to the Democrats: “Change your philosophy or get used to it, you out-of-the-mainstream losers.”
However, a closer reading of Presidential Election Exit Polls back to at least 1996 reveals that nearly everything you’ve been told about them--and almost all the advice the Democrats are now being given--is wrong.
- Liberalism is becoming less popular. WRONG!
1. Since 1996, the percentage of voters identifying themselves as Liberal has increased by 1% (to 21%) while Conservatives have also increased by 1% (to 34%).
2. The percentage of the electorate that considers the key conservative economic issue, “Taxes”, the most important issue dropped from 15% in 1996 to 5% in 2004. Even excluding Iraq and Terrorism, the salience of Taxes would have fallen to 7.6% of 2004 voters.
3. Liberalism is dependent on the popularity of the federal government. Since 1992, the percentage of people who believe the federal government should do more has increased from 39% to 46% while the number who believe it should do less has declined from 55% to 49%.
4. Based on the Issue responses, if 9/11 had never happened, Kerry would have won the election, 52/47%. This has to be taken with a grain of salt as Democrats often win on “issues” but lose elections. Still, it calls into question the post-election advice regarding the unpopularity of the Democratic message.
- Democrats can’t win because they are on the “wrong” side of the social issues, popularly known as “God, Gays, and Guns “. WRONG!
These social issues may have been determinative in a number of states (Ohio, Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Florida) and, given our state-based electoral system, cannot be ignored, but as national trends they are either static or losing ground.
5. Since 1996, the percentage of the vote that is Catholic and Protestant has declined by 2%, while the percentages of voters with Other Religions and No Religion increased by 4%. (Protestants are becoming more evangelical, but Protestants were already the base of the Republican Party.)
6. Since 2000, the percentage of voters who attend church monthly or more stayed the same, while the number who seldom or never attend went up 1%.
7. Pro-choice beats anti-abortion 55%/42%. (Although, since 1992, the percentage who believe that abortion should always be legal has dropped from 35% to 21%, probably due to the debate on partial-birth abortion.)
8. The support for gay marriage or civil unions actually trumps the opposition by “landslide” margins: 60%/37%.
9. Bush won over half the voters (52%) who said they favored civil unions.
10. The percentage of households who own guns has dropped from 48% to 41% since 2000. (Kerry improved on Gore’s percentage among gun owners, indicating that his effort on this issue paid off.)
11. The Democrat’s military problem may be deeper than their “God, Gays, and Guns” problem. Kerry actually won the vote of the 82% of the people who have never served. But he lost the vote of the remaining 18% by 57%/41% or 3.5 million votes, virtually the final margin. (How did the military vote in 2000? The question wasn’t asked.)
- Bush won the election because he increased his small town and rural percentages while younger voters did not turn out for Kerry! WRONG!
12. According to these polls, Bush didn’t improve his percentages in small towns and rural areas from 2000. (Of course, turnout increased.) Meanwhile the rural vote, while Republican, is declining.
13. Younger voters did turn out, but everybody turned out. It’s hard for liberals to fault younger voters; they were the only age group that Kerry won. Meanwhile, Bush improved his vote among all other age groups, but especially the 24% of voters over 60, where he improved by 7% or nearly 2 million votes.
- Bush’s increase among Hispanics was critical to his victory. WRONG!
14. The trend in the Hispanic vote is important for the future. But Hispanics were not the key to this victory. While 6% of Hispanics moved toward the President (other Exit Polls say it’s a bit less), Hispanics only represent 8% of the electorate (up from 3.2% in 1992). This move by Hispanics only represents a little over half a million voters, enough to help Bush erase his deficit to Gore, but not much else.
- Bush’s edge over Kerry rose broadly in the battleground states as turnout increased. WRONG!
15. Bush’s percentages increased narrowly in the battleground states: Bush increased by 23%, Kerry by 21%. In the safe Bush states, Bush was up 21%, Kerry 12%. The key to Bush’s margin was actually the safe Kerry states where Bush was up 16%, Kerry only 5%. Did this result from the fact that 9/11 happened to directly impact residents of blue states (NY, NJ, PA, DC)? Was it the lack of effort of a Kerry campaign focused on the battleground states? The natural edge of incumbency? The exit polls can’t help us.
Of course, these Exit Polls aren’t great news for the Democrats. This is a divided country. Numerous trends are worrisome. Will Catholics and Hispanics continue to vote increasingly Republican? Will the new secular voters reside on the West Coast or in the Northeast where Democrats can’t use any more of them? Will a significant number of pro-choice and pro-civil union Americans continue to vote Republican? Can the Democrats find greater favor with the military and small town/exurban residents?
And, winning by only one-half of 1% of the vote, as Gore did in 2000, is hardly a reliable way to control the federal government. Nonetheless, Al Gore did win the popular vote in 2000 with essentially the same liberal agenda and philosophy as Kerry and the polls do not reflect that the public has turned against these issues.
If five percent of women had not switched parties, the election would have been something of a replay of 2000, perhaps with Kerry winning Ohio and the Presidency. Picking one reason for the switch is a fool’s errand. People usually choose their candidate for a variety of reasons. It’s also a chestnut of American politics that people vote on character rather than issues, and Bush’s personality was often deemed more appealing. (Perhaps the one poll result that is most at odds with Democratic conviction is that more voters believed that Democrats attacked Bush unfairly than vice versa in each of the last two elections.)
Still, the largest demographic group to switch was (mainly older) women (Security Grandmoms?), and this data indicates that it was “Terrorism” that moved them, as it was the one new issue in this election where Bush scored with a large segment of the public. Even adding the voters who considered Iraq the most important issue (15%) and who went largely for Kerry to the Terrorism voters, Bush had over a 6% advantage with over one-third of the voters, nearly his entire margin of victory.
Even if the talk about “Moral Values” was accurate, however, Democrats don’t have to address themselves to the issue that most Republicans believe to be important. Rather, they need to address the issues where Republican voter intensity is the lowest.
Unfortunately, that’s something these Exit Polls didn’t measure.
Mitchell Rofsky (firstname.lastname@example.org), formerly a public interest lobbyist in Washington DC, is president of Better World Club, the nation’s only socially responsible, eco-friendly auto club.