'Values Voters' And Campaign 2004: Debunking A Political Myth

Claims that Religious Right-style "values voters" swung the presidential election to George W. Bush have been all the rage since Nov. 2. But now, more in-depth analyses of exit polling data have debunked that assertion.

A spate of news stories began circulating the day after the election that "values voters" had won the day for Bush. These stories hinged on a finding from exit polls that showed that 22 percent of respondents listed "moral values" as their top concern when voting for president. Pollsters were surprised to see this number edge out other issues, such as the economy, the war in Iraq and terrorism.

Although the story carried great weight for a few days, its claims are quickly crumbling. A number of columnists and political analysts from both ends of the spectrum are now casting doubt on the assertion that "values voters" played a decisive role - and backing that up with evidence.

First out of the box was Gary Langer, director of polling for ABC News. Langer observed in a New York Times op-ed Nov. 6 that the phrase "moral values" is hopelessly vague. Langer even noted that he had tried to persuade other pollsters to leave the phrase out of the exit polling but was overruled.

"[T]his hot-button catch phrase had no place alongside defined political issues on the list of most important concerns in the 2004 vote," Langer wrote. "Its presence there created a deep distortion - one that threatens to misinform the political discourse for years to come."

Post-election polls that took a deeper look at the "values" issues buttressed Langer's view. A week after the election, two progressive religious groups, Pax Christi and Res Publica, joined the liberal Center for American Progress in releasing a poll conducted by Zogby International on moral issues.

The poll's finding supported Langer's view that "moral values" is so vague a term it can mean many different things to people. In the post-election analyses, most reporters assumed that by "moral values" voters meant traditional Religious Right issues such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

In fact, the voters were apparently casting a much broader net. For example, 33 percent of respondents in the Zogby poll identified "greed and materialism" as the most pressing moral issue facing the nation. Thirty-one percent said "poverty and economic justice." Only 12 percent named same-sex marriage.

The poll also found that 42 percent said the war in Iraq was the "moral issue" that most influenced their vote. Thirteen percent cited abortion, and 9 percent said same-sex marriage.

Listing an open-ended term like "moral values" alongside specific issues such as the Iraq war, jobs and terrorism created a catchall category that was attractive to many respondents. Because it was offered, and because the term has positive connotations, voters latched on to it.

A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that when people were asked to simply name the one issue that most influenced their vote for president without being prompted by a list of possibilities, "moral values" did not rank high. In fact, it trailed the war in Iraq and the economy.

"We did not see any indication that social conservative issues like abortion, gay rights and stem cell research were anywhere near as important as the economy and Iraq," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "'Moral values' is a phrase that's very attractive to people."

Previous elections provide further evidence that "values voters" obsessed with "moral issues" did not decide the '04 race. In 1996, a Los Angeles Times exit poll found "moral values" to be the top concern of voters - but no one attributed President Bill Clinton's easy win over Republican Robert Dole that year to the Religious Right.

Further evidence indicates that the Religious Right did not turn out in higher numbers this year. No poll has shown that evangelical turnout constituted a greater percentage of the total electorate than in 2000.

None of this is to suggest that the Religious Right was not energized this year. Clearly, the movement was unified behind Bush, and many Religious Right leaders worked hard to get voters to the polls. The presence of "marriage amendments" in 11 states probably brought some new social conservative voters to the polls. But the claim that the Religious Right delivered the election to Bush does not stand up to scrutiny. In the end, more voters cast ballots for Bush over issues like national security and the war in Iraq.

But don't expect the Religious Right to stop claiming it is responsible for Bush's re-election. This assertion has obvious benefits to the movement; mainly, it gives Religious Right leaders the power to say to Bush, "We elected you, and now here's what we want in return."

Despite the new evidence, the Religious Right isn't likely to let go of the "values voters" canard. It's simply too powerful of a weapon to drop only because the facts no longer support it. No matter what the experts say, expect the "values voters" to remain a Religious Right urban legend for many years to come.