It took several weeks, but the high-flying theory that "values voters" turned out for the first time this year to swing the election in President Bush's favor is finally losing altitude. The "moral values" myth, though, never should have taken off in the first place.
Though many have bemoaned the lack of information on the role of values voters in previous elections, it's actually out there, if you know where to look. What it shows is that moral values voters aren't a new phenomenon. There were about as many such voters this year as in recent presidential elections. And fewer of them voted for Bush this time than did in 2000.
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Most post-election analysis featured the well-known National Election Pool (NEP) exit poll, conducted by Edison/Mitofsky for a consortium of TV networks and the Associated Press. In asking voters about the issues driving their choice for president, this year's incarnation of the major media's long-standing exit polls offered the "moral values" option for the first time, providing a surprise result that launched the issue into the political stratosphere.
But there's another exit poll that has asked voters about moral values in the past four elections. The Los Angeles Times conducts its own national exit poll. Since 1992, it has asked voters which two issues they considered most important in deciding how they would vote. This year, 40 percent of voters the newspaper surveyed cited "moral/ethical values" as one of their two most important issues. Guess what? That's about the same proportion as in the previous two elections: 35 percent named moral values in 2000 and 40 percent did so in 1996, up from 24 percent in 1992. So this year didn't see an unprecedented surge in values voters rushing to the polls.
And while Bush strategist Karl Rove must be gratified that the 2000 dip in the turnout of values voters was reversed in 2004, he can't be entirely thrilled by how they cast their votes. The L.A. Times survey showed that moral values voters gave 70 percent of their votes to Bush this year. But that's a drop from 2000, when he won 74 percent. Put another way, 54 percent of Bush voters this year cited moral values -- a decline from the Republican high-water mark in 1996, when 67 percent of Bob Dole's voters named moral values. For Democratic nominees, by contrast, the trend has been up, not down, steadily rising from a scant 9 percent of Bill Clinton supporters naming moral values in the "it's the economy" election of 1992 to 24 percent of John Kerry's voters this year.
A closer look at the NEP poll also punctures the myth that the social groups most often cited as moral values voters provided a significantly increased share of Bush's vote this year. People who attend church at least once a week were 41 percent of the voters in both 2000 and 2004, and Bush's share of their votes increased only one percentage point in 2004. Bush actually enjoyed slightly larger gains -- four points -- among people who occasionally or never attend church. Similarly, while Bush gained four percentage points among white Protestants this year, those voters dropped from 45 percent to 41 percent of the electorate, so their share in his overall vote didn't rise.
Moral values also failed to play a dominant role in many crucial swing states, according to NEP exit polls conducted in individual states. In Florida, where Bush increased his winning margin by 5 percent over 2000, 24 percent of the voters in the NEP exit poll cited terrorism and only 20 percent moral values as the one issue that "mattered most in deciding" their vote. Twenty-four percent of Ohio voters mentioned the economy/jobs and 23 percent cited moral values. The issue's impact on the outcome in other swing states is also unclear: It was cited by more voters than other issues both in states that Bush lost, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, and in states that he won, such as Iowa and New Mexico.
The alleged importance of the moral values voters is further undermined by a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in the days after the election. When survey respondents were asked what issue mattered most to them, and were provided no fixed list of answers to choose from (as they were in the NEP poll), only 9 percent volunteered moral values, and another 3 percent cited issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
When a separate sample of respondents was asked the question in the exit poll format, with a fixed list of response options, 27 percent chose "moral values." On a follow-up question probing what moral values they had in mind, 44 percent cited issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, 23 percent mentioned candidate qualities, 18 percent made religious references and 17 percent indicated traditional values such as "family values." This broad set of concerns indicates that the moral values response is not simply a stand-in for conservative opinions on cultural issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage but provides a catch-all for a range of concerns.
So what's the picture that emerges from all these numbers? A large and fairly stable group of moral values voters, whose numbers have been largely consistent over the past three elections, who vote Republican in roughly the same or smaller proportions year after year, who provided no clear winning boost to Bush, and whose idea of what constitutes moral values is hardly uniform. This is a poor fit for the reigning image of a crucial swing vote -- animated single-mindedly by cultural wedge issues -- that turned out in unprecedented numbers to push Bush over the top in 2004. It's time to reel the moral values myth back down to earth.
Author's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Christopher Muste is a senior polling analyst at The Post and an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Montana.