What were the most important issues for voters in the election? If you were reading the polls, and listening to the media chatter before the election, the answer would have seemed clear: Iraq or the War on Terror and the state of the economy. In news coverage of the campaign, in the Presidential debates and in the blogosphere blather, the election was fought on these issues. But from about 10pm last night onwards, and increasingly so this morning, commentators suddenly started talking about the importance of moral values in the campaign. It was all over the news this morning.
The exit poll data show that 22% of the electorate thought that “moral values” was the most important issue in the election, and these voters went for Bush nearly 80% to 20%. The ratio is reversed for the 20% who thought that the Economy was the most important issue. In the case of Iraq and Terrorism, it’s interesting to see, first, that these are two separate options. People who said “Iraq” (15%) went for Kerry 75% to 25%, while those who said “Terrorism” (19%) went for Bush 85% to 14%. But the main issue for voters was moral values and it seems to me that there was basically no sustained media analysis on this point prior to the election. I want to know why. Were the pollsters keeping quiet about it? Was it an error in their categorization? For instance, did they lump a bunch of things including moral values into an “Other” category early on and then just focus on the Economy vs Iraq/Terror trope for the campaign?
So it seems to me, in short, that Amy Sullivan’s analysis has been vindicated by the results. She first articulated it in June of 2003, well before it was clear who was going to win the Democratic nomination and reiterated it more than once recently. Right now the Democrats don’t have a plausible spiel on morality. I don’t mean that they’re less likely to be moral people, just that they don’t have a coherent way of talking to their own base—let alone the electorate—about what they stand for in religious terms. The fact that it is just a spiel can be seen from the fact that—as Sullivan has also pointed out—the upper reaches of the Bush Administration are not exactly staffed with devout Christians and the President, unlike Kerry, hasn’t been to Church in years.
Late in the day, Kerry’s began to talk about his faith a lot more explicitly in his stump speech. It does seem like his campaign was starting to see the importance of the issue to voters. But I didn’t see this question getting the kind of coverage the data show it merited.
fn1. I want to know whether voters are just asked to say what their view is, or whether they’re presented with a laundry list of choices. I imagine it would have to be the former.