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'Moral Values' Theory of Election Discredited in WaPo Article

Journalism 101 professors should require their students to read an excellent article in the Sunday Washington Post, "The Anatomy of Myth: How did one exit poll answer become the story of how Bush won?". The author, Dick Meyer, editorial director of CBSNews.com, shreds the argument that concern about declining 'moral values' was the pivotal determinant of the 2004 presidential election. Meyer notes that responses to "a single dodgy exit poll question" ranking 'moral values' as the most important priority for 22% of exit poll respondents over economy/jobs (20%), terrorism (19%) and Iraq (15%) became the basis for a media bandwagon based on lazy reporting and thin suppositions about the meaning of the term.

Meyer likens the term to a "Rorschach test" holding a multitude of meanings for different people, "not a discrete, clear political issue to be set next to taxes or terrorism." Reporters seized on the exit poll responses to the catch-all question as proof that voters were reacting to same-sex marriage, late-term abortion and other cultural concerns of the religious right. Yet to many voters, moral issues include the war in Iraq, personal integrity of the candidates, patriotism or helping the poor. Had the term "moral values" been broken down into such categories in the poll, or had terrorism and Iraq been combined, the ranking would likely have been quite different. As Meyer concludes "the moral values doctrine has morphed from a simple poll finding to a grand explanatory theory to gospel truth. This contaminated strain of punditry needs to be eradicated before it spreads further."

Comments

I think that the backlash against the moral values thesis has been too extreme. "Moral values" is ambiguous, of course, but the fact of the matter is that President Bush received 80% of the votes of the 22% who said that moral values was their most important issue. That suggests that a sizable number of voters interpreted moral values as meaning gay marriage, abortion, etc.

I second Mark Fine's request. Tell us, if it wan't the Jesusland people who put Bush into office, what crazies did so?

I admire and respect Ruy's statistical analyses, but I think maybe the Democrats have gone a little overboard in looking at statistics. The same set of statistics can yield a dozen sets of conclusions.

I believe the definitive study that needs to be done will ask a lot of people these questions to gain some valuable qualitative data: did you hear Kerry's message, did you understand his message, did you believe his message, and if you did all this, was that message or was it not important to you? Why or why not?

I simply cannot understand how rational people could vote for a man who has not really done anything to reduce tensions (he has played upon them and, if anything, increased them), improved the economy, brought any noticeable compassion to his task as he said he would, or been the "unifier" he said he would be.

Does this mean about 50% of the electorate is NOT rational? The explanation of the evangelical and theocon votes going to Bush, blocs that are not necessarily rational or pragmatic, made for a very pat explanation. If not that, then what was it?

Get that study going, somebody.

Martin - One answer to your lead-off question is that the largest demographic gain for Bush over his 2000 count was white women. He added about 4 million white women voters to his 2004 popular vote total, which is one way to explain his margin of victory. Other recent studies suggest that these were mostly married women. It would be interesting to know the class breakdown of these women and to get some idea of the issues that motivated them.

The point about the moral values issue is NOT that it led to a wholesale win by Bush. Rather, the issue motivated people to come out who would not have come out otherwise. Remember, the election was close. A small increase in turnout was all that was needed.

If it motivated an additional 20,000-30,000 to come out, that would be important.

We have seen extreme views on the importance of the "moral values" response to an Exit Poll question. At first it was touted as the main explanation for Bush's victory. Then the question itself was blasted as poorly framed and practically worthless.

In fact, the question was a useful one for identifying a large and important component of Bush supporters, though it probably did not make the difference between 2000 and 2004, which was largely due to Bush's connection to 9/11 and fighting terrorism.

But criticisms of the question as invalid miss the mark. It not only showed a large difference between Bush and Kerry voters in the main exit poll, but it did so in a comparison of open and closed questions in a Pew post-election poll, so the original finding was not just a function of question wording. Moreover, the claim that "moral values" was not an issue like the others asked about is incorrect. Was "terrorism" really an issue on which the two candidates differed? Hardly. What the choice of "terrorism" by Bush voters indicated was their view of character: Bush as a strong leader, just as moral values also was taken to indicate character, Bush as a faith-based President. Neither response was an "issue" in the sense that taxes was an issue.

Competing in terms of "moral values" will be important for a future Democratic candidate.

We have seen extreme views on the importance of the "moral values" response to an Exit Poll question. At first it was touted as the main explanation for Bush's victory. Then the question itself was blasted as poorly framed and practically worthless.

In fact, the question was a useful one for identifying a large and important component of Bush supporters, though it probably did not make the difference between 2000 and 2004, which was largely due to Bush's connection to 9/11 and fighting terrorism.

But criticisms of the question as invalid miss the mark. It not only showed a large difference between Bush and Kerry voters in the main exit poll, but it did so in a comparison of open and closed questions in a Pew post-election poll, so the original finding was not just a function of question wording. Moreover, the claim that "moral values" was not an issue like the others asked about is incorrect. Was "terrorism" really an issue on which the two candidates differed? Hardly. What the choice of "terrorism" by Bush voters indicated was their view of character: Bush as a strong leader, just as moral values also was taken to indicate character, Bush as a faith-based President. Neither response was an "issue" in the sense that taxes was an issue.

Competing in terms of "moral values" will be important for a future Democratic candidate.