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The Anatomy of a Myth

If the national exit poll had been worded differently, moral values would not have been the top issue and this argument wouldn't be happening.

If, for example, one of the choices on the exit poll list combined "terrorism" and "Iraq," it probably would have been the top concern and nobody would be talking about moral values.

If economy/jobs and taxes were one item instead of two, it might have been the winner. Who knows what the exit poll would have found if "truth in government" were an option. Or "character."

And, most importantly, the definition of moral values is in the eye of the evaluator. Most voters probably did think moral values meant being against gay marriage, stem cell research and late-term abortion; but others undoubtedly thought it meant helping poor people or not invading Iraq. For some, moral values may have referred to character attributes of the candidates. It is a bit of a Rorschach test. Moral values are not a discrete, clear political issue to be set next to taxes or terrorism; it's public-opinion apples and oranges.

Gary Langer, the polling director for ABC News who helped design the exit poll but objected to including the moral values option on the issues list, pointed out some of these flaws in a Nov. 6 op-ed for the New York Times. He argued that "this hot-button catch phrase had no place alongside defined political issues on the list of most important concerns in the 2004 vote. Its presence there created a deep distortion -- one that threatens to misinform the political discourse for years to come."

Now, to the hard question: Are there more values voters than there used to be?

In 2000, the consortium that ran the national exit poll did not list "moral values" as an option on their issues menu. At that time, it would have been seen as a question about Bill and Monica, and so pretty useless. So it's hard to know whether the slice of the electorate concerned with such matters has grown during President Bush's term.

We do know that in the 1996 question about the next administration's priorities, "family values" was tops for 17 percent (behind the winner, "health of the economy," at 21 percent), and that group largely went for Bob Dole. So you could argue that the 17 percent whose top worry was family values and went heavily Republican turned into 22 percent worried about moral values in 2004. That's a slight shift, but hardly a cultural tsunami -- and remember, no one asked these voters for their definition of family values then, or moral values now.

Nonetheless, analysts have been surfing on tidal-wave conclusions. It has become a breast-beating crisis for Democrats that the values voters who were 22 percent of the electorate went for the Republican by a crushing margin, 80 percent to 18 percent. By that logic, it must follow that it's a crisis for Republicans that the 20 percent who care most about the economy and jobs went 80-18 for the Democrat.

Or perhaps it's a crisis for the Republicans that the 45 percent slice of the electorate that describes itself as moderate went for Kerry 54-45? Or that first-time voters went 53-46 for Kerry? So many crises, so few facts to support them.

Voting behavior does divvy up Americans into certain patterns. Rural residents and heavy churchgoers vote Republican. City people and church-avoiders vote Democratic. But these cleavages have persisted in several elections. Moral values didn't just seep into the drinking water.

Yet the myth persists. Sometimes it's perpetuated by partisans claiming that Democrats are hostile to values voters. "There simply aren't enough voters in Berkeley, Santa Monica, Santa Fe, Manhattan and Cambridge to offset the many concerned evangelicals, Catholics and Jews in the rest of the nation for whom moral values are a determining issue," wrote Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke in a Nov. 15 Los Angeles Times op-ed.

Sometimes it's perpetuated by those looking at the red and blue divide. Even after many debunking pieces came out, a story in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle about strained relations in the Christian community noted that "it has gotten stickier than ever in the aftermath of a presidential election in which moral values played a key role in keeping George W. Bush in the White House."

A Nov. 22 op-ed in Newsday by political scientist Laura R. Olson also took off from the fatal assumption. "The much-touted exit poll finding that moral values were the most important Election Day concern of 22 percent of voters highlights the fact that a sizable number of Americans expect political leaders to offer a prophetic vision," she wrote. I'm not picking on her; that's just one example of many I could have cited.

Other scholars have tried to put the exit poll question in perspective. Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political science professor and director of the 2004 Election Project at the University of Minnesota, wrote: "The initial conclusion of media commentators that 'moral values' determined the outcome of the 2004 presidential election was off the mark, neglecting the impacts of partisanship and the economy."

Despite the best efforts of myth-busters, 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.

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Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, where he writes an online column, "Against the Grain."

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