November 12, 2004

Overstating Morality's Election Day Impact

Marc Comtois

Those on the left and right have written and said much since the election regarding the role of moral issues in President Bush's reelection. For those on the right, reaffirmation and confirmation of deeply held beliefs has been expressed. For those on the left, demonization of overly-religious rural southern voters has prevailed over any sort of internal introspection. In a column today, Charles Krauthammer(free register req.) offers some insight into the very basis for this premise and, to my mind, succeeds in showing how the role of morality has been somewhat overstated. (He was preceded by others in coming to this conclusion, for example by Paul Freedman at Slate).

Krauthammer first notes how the Democrats have seemingly converted the Angry White Males of 1994 (who voted Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress into power) into the "Bigoted Christian Redneck" of 2004. He then deconstructs the exit polling that has provided the basis for the apparent importance of moral issues in the 2004 Presidential Election.
Whence comes this fable? With President Bush increasing his share of the vote among Hispanics, Jews, women (especially married women), Catholics, seniors and even African Americans, on what does this victory-of-the-homophobic-evangelical voter rest?

Its origins lie in a single question in the Election Day exit poll. The urban myth grew around the fact that "moral values" ranked highest in the answer to Question J: "Which ONE issue mattered most in deciding how you voted for president?"

It is a thin reed upon which to base a General Theory of the '04 Election. In fact, it is no reed at all. The way the question was set up, moral values were sure to be ranked disproportionately high. Why? Because it was a multiple-choice question, and moral values cover a group of issues, while all the other choices were individual issues. Chop up the alternatives finely enough, and moral values are sure to get a bare plurality over the others.

Look at the choices:

• Education, 4 percent.
• Taxes, 5 percent.
• Health Care, 8 percent.
• Iraq, 15 percent.
• Terrorism, 19 percent.
• Economy and Jobs, 20 percent.
• Moral Values, 22 percent.

"Moral values" encompass abortion, gay marriage, Hollywood's influence, the general coarsening of the culture and, for some, the morality of preemptive war. The way to logically pit this class of issues against the others would be to pit it against other classes: "war issues" or "foreign policy issues" (Iraq plus terrorism) and "economic issues" (jobs, taxes, health care, etc).
Krauthammer then uses his broader categories, does the simple math and shows that War/Terror and Economic issues still held the preeminent place in the voters' minds on election day, much as they did in all of the polls leading up to the election. In essence, the election hinged on the voters prioritization of War/Terror and the Economy. As Freedman had earlier pointed out, there wasn't a "morality gap" so much as a "terrorism gap." Krauthammer's argument is convincing and well-reasoned, though he doesn't mention the role of the 4 million evangelicals who sat out the 2000 election and undoubtedly helped push President Bush to the popular vote lead this election. He does address the specific issue of gay marriage:
Ah, yes. But the fallback is then to attribute Bush's victory to the gay marriage referendums that pushed Bush over the top, particularly in Ohio.

This is more nonsense. George Bush increased his vote in 2004 over 2000 by an average of 3.1 percent nationwide. In Ohio the increase was 1 percent -- less than a third of the national average. In the 11 states in which the gay marriage referendums were held, Bush increased his vote by less than he did in the 39 states that did not have the referendum. The great anti-gay surge was pure fiction.
I would argue that, even if the numbers were to support a "great anti-gay surge" that, in fact, it wasn't anti-gay so much as anti-judicial activism (See: Massachusetts Supreme Court). Nonetheless, the demonization of their opponents is an oft-used salve for the liberal ego. As Krauthammer writes, "They need their moral superiority like oxygen, and they cannot have it cut off by mere facts. Once again they angrily claim the moral high ground, while standing in the ruins of yet another humiliating electoral defeat." Except, of course, in Rhode Island, where the simple of appendage of "(D)" to one's name seems to be enough to guarantee political victory.

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I was just about to blog Krauthammer. It's available without the free registration, by the way, on Townhall.

(Of course, a free WaPo registration is worthwhile, anyway.)

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 12, 2004 10:06 AM

Thanks for the heads up on the TomPaine site, I had forgotten. Please feel free to weigh in on Krauthammer, too.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at November 12, 2004 10:22 AM