Social and intellectual conventions are supposed to settle slowly, but conventional wisdom can congeal instantly and without much wisdom. That's what has happened over the past several weeks with a prevailing interpretation of this year's presidential election -- the great moral values theory.
The Big Political Idea of the '04 election goes something like this: "Moral values" turned out to be the most important issue to voters, not the economy or the Iraq war or terrorism. President Bush won because a legion of "values voters" -- whose growing numbers escaped the attention of an inattentive media -- preferred him. The Democrats are doomed until they can woo the voters who belong to this new political force.
It's a neat theory -- but wrong. How it came to be regarded as the real story of Bush's victory is a fascinating and sobering example of journalism's quest for freshness and surprise.
Here's the simple fact: The evidence that moral values determined the election rests on a single dodgy exit poll question. And it's not at all clear that more voters are preoccupied with moral values now than were fretting about "family values" on Election Day 1996, when exit pollsters included that phrase in a question about "priorities for the new administration." But in the often arid and repetitive arena of American political ideas, fun new contestants can be hard to disqualify. The myth of the moral values election is proving hard to snuff out.
The mantra was in full hum on election night. Television commentators were understandably struck by the results of the question asked of almost 7,000 voters as they left their polling places: "Which one issue mattered most in deciding how you voted for president?" The most cited issue on the list of seven options offered to those surveyed was "moral values" at 22 percent; 80 percent of these voters went for President Bush, 18 percent for Democratic nominee John Kerry. "Economy/jobs" came next on the list at 20 percent, followed by terrorism (19 percent), Iraq (15 percent) and then health care, taxes and education in single digits.
Brian Healy was the CBS News producer covering the exit polls, something he has done in many elections. He recalled that everyone was surprised that moral values topped the list as the numbers came in, but it wasn't until about 4 a.m. that someone quite innocently asked, "What exactly are 'moral values'?"
Too late. The story line was already set. And the surprise nature of the moral values result boosted its allure for the commentariat. When the newspapers could finally write definitive headlines, the notion that moral values was a synonym for various conservative positions became a given -- as did its decisive effect on the outcome of the contest. "Faith, Values Fueled Win," reported the Chicago Tribune. " 'Values voters' key to Bush re-election," declared the Fort Worth Star Telegram. "Moral Values Decide Election," the Tri-Valley Herald in northern California told its online readers.
From the modest experiment of one exit poll question, a Unified Theory of Election 2004 was hatched. Pundits began to spread the word. "Ethics and moral values were ascendant last night -- on voters' minds, in Americans' hearts," William J. Bennett wrote in a column posted in the National Review Online at 11:09 a.m. on the morning after the election -- even before Kerry's concession and Bush's victory speech.
Several days later, American Prospect Executive Editor Michael Tomasky expressed the apocalyptic Democratic interpretation in his column: "The reelection of a president such as George W. Bush for the reasons the exit polls tell us he evidently won is a culminating event in the political retreat of modernity, a condition of existence whose fundamental tenet was the triumph of scientific skepticism over what used to be called 'blind' faith." Wow.
And on CNN's "Crossfire," co-host Tucker Carlson opened the Nov. 5 show with this categorical assessment: "Three days after the presidential election, it is clear that it was not the war on terror, but the issue of what we're calling moral values that drove President Bush and other Republicans to victory this week."
Some reporters were even apologetic for missing the big story. "Somewhere along the line, all of us missed this moral values thing," said CNN's Candy Crowley in a speech to a Florida audience.
Political reporters may have many things to atone for, but missing "the moral values thing" is not one of them. Plenty of commentators have tried to spike this dogma (including me in one of my columns), but it has proved a stubborn adversary. Let's take another swing at it.
Yes, the issues boiled down into the code phrase "moral values" were a factor in this election. There are voters passionately concerned with gay marriage and abortion, and an overwhelming number of them supported President Bush. It's also clear that gay marriage ballot initiatives energized these voters, as did Republican efforts to get out that vote.
But the size and impact of that cohort has been exaggerated. And the impact of other issues (war, terrorism) and leadership qualities was minimized. That's mostly because of oddities in the exit poll, but also because this Big Political Idea conforms to what some Republican strategists are peddling (and their interpretation has the added credibility that winners get in writing history). It also fits neatly the red/blue, "two Americas" school of thought, which projects the country as deeply divided and at war over cultural issues.