Moral issues did not drive voters, but they have been hijacked by the radical right
CI Senior Fellow Dr. Patrick O’Heffernan will use recent surveys to take a weekly look at “conventional wisdom” generated by the Right’s echo chamber. Send your comments, corrections, and suggestions for topics to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Conventional wisdom: “ Moral Issues drove voters” screams a website of the religious right, referring vaguely to “some exit polling” and then quickly defining the term as referring solely to gay marriage and abortion. Actually, a single, poorly defined question on the news networks’ exit polls generated the 22% statistic of voters who were driven by “moral values”, and left open the meaning of the term. (Dick Meyer of the San Francisco Chronicle has detailed how this one response became conventional wisdom).
So what do other polls say about “moral values” and the election? They say that the Right is wrong on what drove voters, but is right on what people understand as moral values.
. A comprehensive survey of voters conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press Nov. 5 through 8 probed a representative sample of 1209 voters using over 50 questions. An unprompted question (one in which the interviewer let the voter respond without being given a written or verbal answers) asked, “What one issue mattered most to you in deciding how you voted for president?”. One quarter named that the war in Iraq; only 9% volunteered “moral questions. An added 6% responded with abortion, gay marriage, or stem cells for combined total of 15% of voters driven by moral values -- virtually the same percentage as those who cited jobs as their primary issue.
Pew researchers asked voters just what they meant by “moral values”. People who cited moral values as an important vote driver listed two issues that are not moral issues, but threats to male supremacy: gay marriage (29%), abortion (28%); stem cell research (4%) and helping others (2%) were their other major components of “moral values.” When people who did not list moral values” as a primary vote driver were asked what moral values meant to them, 35% said “traditional values” but did not include the rights and abortion rights in follow up responses. When asked about policies that fell under the rubric of “moral values”, a quarter of this group responded by naming gay marriage, and abortion; economic equality/helping others garnered 5% from this group.
A Christian polling organization, The Barna Group, concurred, reporting that its surveys showed that “most Christians' votes were influenced more by their economic self-interest than by their moral values” and that “a minority of born again adults (44%) and an even smaller proportion of born again teenagers (9%) are certain of the existence of absolute moral truth.” But Barna also noted that while born-agains and evangelicals are only 38% of the population, in 2004 they constituted 53% of the voters (some of whom obviously voted for Kerry, since Bush only got 51% of the vote).
What it means.
First, that moral issues were not the major vote driver in the 2004 elections; the war in
Second, the Right has been highly successful in defining two male supremacy issues – the legitimacy of gays, and the ability of women to control their bodies – as “moral values” in the minds of believers, but not quite so successfully in the minds of economically-driver voters.
Third, the Bush campaign successfully labeled legitimacy of gays and women’s right to control their bodies – as “moral values” and combined them with superb political organization to drive born-again/evangelical Christians to the poll in huge numbers.
What it means for Progressives.
1. Progressives must quickly set agendas or risk allowing the radical right to do it first. Allowing the radical right to claim that moral values drove the election has emboldened the Christian Right and validated their demands to combine religion with politics, regardless of the Constitution.
2. Progressive must quickly and forcefully define moral values and all other issues their way, or watch the radical right take them away as their own. By reducing “moral values” to two issues that are actually threats to male dominance over women, they created a powerful tool to motivate moderate as well as conservative men, and to make any challenge to the strict-father model of society a challenge to “moral values”.
3. Both strategies require a Progressive message and communication infrastructure equivalent to that built by the Right over the past 30 years. The foundation for this infrastructure must be well-funded think tanks with rapid message and action capabilities that can set and move Progressive agendas and messages quickly through our society.
See www.commonwealinstitute.org for more information on the radical right's communnication machine.