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The “Values Voters” Debate Continues

The initial take on the allegedly central role of “values voters” in the 2004 election had a shaky empirical foundation: the slight plurality of voters in the NEP exit poll who selected “moral values” as their most important voting issue and who voted heavily (80 percent) for Bush. This line of analysis has come under increasing fire in the recent weeks, as many observers have noted that moral values did not really belong in a list of voting issues like the economy and the war in Iraq and that the NEP exit poll question has not been asked with a values choice before and hence provides no information on any change in this election in the level of values voting.
The latter point is where Christopher Muste picks up the story in his excellent article, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Polling Data Show Moral Values Aren’t a New Factor” in Sunday’s Washington Post. Muste notes, to begin with:

[T]here’s another exit poll that has asked voters about moral values in the past four elections. The Los Angeles Times conducts its own national exit poll. Since 1992, it has asked voters which two issues they considered most important in deciding how they would vote. This year, 40 percent of voters the newspaper surveyed cited “moral/ethical values” as one of their two most important issues. Guess what? That’s about the same proportion as in the previous two elections: 35 percent named moral values in 2000 and 40 percent did so in 1996, up from 24 percent in 1992. So this year didn’t see an unprecedented surge in values voters rushing to the polls.

I’ve seen these particular findings from the LA Times polls cited in other articles, but Muste goes on to cite some addtional and very interesting findings from these polls that I have not seen before:

And while Bush strategist Karl Rove must be gratified that the 2000 dip in the turnout of values voters was reversed in 2004, he can’t be entirely thrilled by how they cast their votes. The L.A. Times survey showed that moral values voters gave 70 percent of their votes to Bush this year. But that’s a drop from 2000, when he won 74 percent. Put another way, 54 percent of Bush voters this year cited moral values — a decline from the Republican high-water mark in 1996, when 67 percent of Bob Dole’s voters named moral values. For Democratic nominees, by contrast, the trend has been up, not down, steadily rising from a scant 9 percent of Bill Clinton supporters naming moral values in the “it’s the economy” election of 1992 to 24 percent of John Kerry’s voters this year.

Muste goes on to cite other data from the NEP poll and data from a post-election survey by the Pew Research Center that suggest the dominant role of values voters in the 2004 election has been exaggerated and that values voting, in general, should not be narrowly defined by reference to issues like gay marriage and abortion. He concludes:

A large and fairly stable group of moral values voters, whose numbers have been largely consistent over the past three elections, who vote Republican in roughly the same or smaller proportions year after year, who provided no clear winning boost to Bush, and whose idea of what constitutes moral values is hardly uniform. This is a poor fit for the reigning image of a crucial swing vote — animated single-mindedly by cultural wedge issues — that turned out in unprecedented numbers to push Bush over the top in 2004. It’s time to reel the moral values myth back down to earth.

Amen. I might add, though, that even if values voters weren’t important in the way election mythology has indicated, it doesn’t mean values, broadly defined, weren’t important to voters. Questions of presidential character and of America’s role in the world, especially vis a vis the war on terror, are very much bound up with values and affected voters’ decisions. But that broad conception of values and voting should’t be collapsed to the image of swing voters “animated single-mindedly by cultural wedge issues”, as Muste correctly points out.

10 comments on “The “Values Voters” Debate Continues

  1. InsanePreschoolMom on

    Here’s one evangelical Christian smart enough to know that making something illegal isn’t always the solution. So I voted for Kerry, the obvious choice for a progressive born-again who wants to be like Jesus. And I’m sure there were others at my huge southern baptist church that did the same.

  2. Matthew on

    Democrats may be looking for a scapegoat for their loss, thus the myth that “values voters” stole the election. However, Conservative Christians have lost no time in taking credit for Bush’s win, either. At some point, if enough people believe it, does myth become truth?
    Check this article about Jerry Falwell reviving his Moral Majority. This kook certainly believes his followers played a large role in winning this election for Bush. Falwell Invigorated by Election (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,141218,00.html).

  3. Pastor Craig on

    Then who the hell voted for Bush? And on what basis? If the percentage of “value voters” (and I would consider myslef amongst that elite) actually dropped, how did John Kerry lose? On the issues? Does anything make any sense here?

  4. bakho on

    Whatever the reason, Bush managed to turn out a lot of voters that do not normally vote. I was checking off our GOTV for the local Dems at the polls in Red State Indiana. Turnout was far higher than expected. My GOP counterpart was getting pissy because a lot of voters showed up that were not on her GOTV list. Well they were not on my GOTV list either. I thought well, high turnout is good for the Dems, but not so.
    There are a LOT of swing voters in Indiana. Bush won by a large margin, but Evan Bayh got re-elected with about 60%. Then Daniels won the gov race by a large margin (the bad economy worked for Daniels- go figure).
    My own thoughts on many of these voters is they are not happy with the way things are going, but support Bush because he is making life miserable for the Iraqis. These voters are not sophisticated enough to distinguish between Saddam and Osama, Iraqi, Afghani as many polls have shown.
    This is the way it works in High School, the pinnacle of education for many of these voters. If you don’t fight, people will pick on you. If you fight, you will get picked on less. If you can get a reputation for fighting dirty, no one will mess with you period. This is the way they see foreign policy and think that if Bush fights someone (anyone) and the US is the baddest MF on the planet, then the terrorists will leave us alone. Not that any of this is true, but this is the world view from the red states.

  5. demtom on

    But, as that font of DC conventional wisdom Cokie Roberts once arrogantly said, It doesn’t matter if it’s true; it’s what’s generally believed. The Beltway pundits have by and large bought into it in a big way — today’s NY Times actually tries to shoehorn the box-office success of Christmas with the Kranks into a “Christian uprising” theme. And certainly the ludicrous pre-empting of Saving Private Ryan from TV represents media fear of the Ralph Reed-led giant.
    And you know what? — I’m not sure this is so bad for Democrats. Back as far as the Reagan era, Democrats found their one salient argument against re-electing the Gipper was scaring people about the influence of Jerry Falwell. The Gary Bauers of the GOP are being quite forthright about wanting to see results — not sometime in the future; NOW. The more power they feel they have, the more they’ll push the administration into taking positions at odds with the vast middle of the country (which remains moderate in policy). Those teetering Republicans — the ones who stayed with Bush rather than defecting a la John Eisenhower/Bill Milliken, but who are really iffy about it — could finally make the move Dem-weard as a result.
    The administration already has to worry about a shaky economy and an Iraq almost bound to explode. A “we want it now” religious right is the last thing it needs.

  6. Oldhands on

    Early on, I remember a blog or news item that highlighted the fact that, when asked pointblank, what “moral values” were we talking about, the answers were vague and fuzzy, nothing very specific. Haven’t seem much commentary since, but if true, maybe the spin doctors got lucky with a slippery phrase, like “family values”?????

  7. rita forsyth on

    I have become increasingly irritated, nowhere in all the “moral values” discussions have I seen noted the opposite effect on “bluestate” voters of the insinuated acceptance that we HAVE no moral values!!!
    That discussion has yet to take place. Why have we progressive liberals allowed the framing of this issue to be one of acceptance of the accusation we have no values? It seems to me we accept the guilt.
    As a person whose job took me around the US, particulary in the South, I was shocked at the value system I found as compared to the Northeast. Comeon the accusation is a myth!!! Examine the issue do the state by state checks and you’ll be amazed at our ethical, ethnic roots which really rule the blue states!!! Put simply we all know who our grandparents where and what they believed in. That is exactly what is wrong with Kansas. They don’t have ethnic roots as simple as that.

  8. Avedon on

    Just for the record, I was a subject of the Zogby poll for the last couple-few years, and immediately after the election we were given that question for the first time. Previously, I’d felt frustrated by the question asking me which of a number of issues had been the one most influential in how I cast my vote – there wasn’t an “all of the above”, but I regard more than one or two issues as vital.
    The “moral values” question was perfect for me, since it covered everything. I voted for Kerry based on my moral values, of course. Didn’t everyone?

  9. laurabelin on

    I have a few questions. First, why are we supposed to take the post-election polls as gospel truth when the exit polls, which are supposed to be very accurate, were way off?
    Second, I wonder if “values voters” are being defined too narrowly by this analysis. It seems to me that a lot of churches are violating their tax-free status by mixing political propaganda with regular worship and Bible study. They’re not just pushing the Republican point of view on abortion and gay marriage, but also on all kinds of other issues. I believe it was Marshall Wittman who said he became disenchanted with the Christian Coalition because it was pushing for all of Grover Norquist’s pet tax policies.
    Clergy who take an active role in Republican poliltics may not frame everything in terms of what we consider “values” issues. For instance, Mike Hintz, a youth minister in an Assembly of God Church in Des Moines, appeared at a Bush campaign rally this fall, praising Bush for his values, but he emphasized how tax cuts had saved his family of six money. (Since the election, Hintz has been fired after local media reported that he was having an affair with a 17-year-old congregant, but that’s another story.)
    Church is a focal point of many people’s lives, and if they get a strong message about how to vote from pastors, it can be very influential. When polled, these people might not list moral values as the number one issue–they might list tax cuts or the war on terror–but that doesn’t mean that they are not influenced by the religious right’s political agenda.
    I fear that voters like this will not be receptive to any Democrat, no matter how well we craft the message and how good a messenger we find. Week in and week out, they are getting the message from their home away from home that Republicans are good and Democrats are bad.

  10. cls180 on

    Frankly, I’m pretty happy with the Christian Right taking away the idea that they have a mandate for shoving their version of “values” down our throats. One thing Americans ultimately have in common….we hate being told what to do or how to think. I’m OK with letting the morals mythology ride for awhile…..


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