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Family Values a Key to Result

By Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 1997; Page A01

After months of frantic debate over taxes, education and abortion, the little-discussed issue of family values emerged as a key factor in the decisive victory of James S. Gilmore III in the Virginia governor's race, according to a media exit poll.

The Republican ran ahead of Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr. in most areas of the state and beat Beyer in the Democrat's Northern Virginia home region.

Even Beyer's consistently strong showing among women in preelection polls failed to materialize on Election Day, as Gilmore won handily among men and matched the Democrat vote for vote among women, according to the exit poll by Edison Media Research, which was sponsored by The Washington Post, CNN, ABC News and the Associated Press.

Taxes and education led the list of issues that Virginia voters said were critical in determining their vote for governor. Nearly one-third listed taxes as the issue that mainly determined their vote, while almost as many said education was their biggest concern, according to the interviews of voters as they left the polls.

However, the divisions over those two fiercely contested issues didn't produce Gilmore's big margin of victory, the survey found.

Donald S. Beyer/TWP
A defeated Beyer speaks to a reporter in Richmond. (James A. Parcell/The Washington Post)

Gilmore, whose campaign centered on a promise to eliminate the personal property tax on cars and trucks, won 8 out of 10 votes among those who said taxes were their most important concern. But that advantage was largely canceled out by Beyer's equally lopsided appeal to voters who said education was most important to them.

Instead, it was voters deeply worried about family values and morality who appeared to give Gilmore much of his final advantage. Nearly 1 in 7 voters ranked family values and morality as the issue that mattered most in deciding their vote, a concern that ranked third behind taxes and education as top election issues.

Gilmore claimed 8 out of 10 of these voters, a coalition that was disproportionately composed of members of the Religious Right but also included large numbers of socially conservative Democrats and political independents.

Bernie Victory, voting at Marshall High School near Tysons Corner, said his "conservative family values" -- and his displeasure over Democratic positions on those issues -- guided his vote for Gilmore and other Republicans Tuesday.

"I used to vote Democratic, but I changed because of the [Democrats'] increasing focus on social issues," said Victory, 36.

About 1 in 10 voters said they were members of the Religious Right, and about 90 percent of them voted for Gilmore. The Republican also claimed 6 in 10 votes cast by frequent churchgoers, a group that made up half of yesterday's voters.

Other issues offered less clear advantage to either candidate. One out of 8 voters said the candidates' positions on abortion were the key to determining their vote, and Beyer led Gilmore by 54 percent to 46 percent among these voters.

Beyer won easily among the few voters most concerned about the environment, while Gilmore led among the equally small sliver of the electorate that worried most about crime.

A total of 1,463 randomly selected voters were interviewed for the survey. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Six out of 10 men voted for Gilmore, who also ran about even with Beyer among women. Gilmore's advantage was even greater among whites; he won 66 percent of the white male vote and 57 percent of the votes cast by white women.

By a 49 percent to 36 percent margin, voters said they liked Gilmore's plan to eliminate the state property tax on cars and trucks better than Beyer's proposal, which would have granted a tax credit to Virginians making less than $75,000 a year. Gilmore's plan was even more popular in Northern Virginia, the exit poll found.

"I hate that tax," said Scott Gibson, 41, as he left his polling place in Springfield after voting for Gilmore. "I don't think it's right."

Lori Cousins, 36, of Alexandria, also said she was voting her pocketbook.

"There are years when I vote out of party loyalty," said Cousins, a Republican who voted for Gilmore. "But this year I voted on the issue -- the car tax. It significantly impacts my finances."

Cousins, who has a 15-year-old daughter, said she was confident that Gilmore supports education and would not allow cuts in funding for schools.

Other voters wondered whether a cut in the property tax won't be matched by increases in other taxes.

Maureen Anderson, voting at the Buckhall Volunteer Fire Department in central Prince William County, said: "I like the idea of slashing the car tax, but it's not the most important thing. You've got to look at the big picture . . . We'll pay it one way or another." Anderson, 52, a homemaker with three grown children, said she voted for Gilmore.

But other voters, including some of Gilmore's own supporters, doubted that the car tax would be killed. "To be perfectly frank, I'm not sure anything will happen," said H.L. Horne, 72, a Navy retiree voting for Gilmore at Sudley Elementary School north of Manassas. "Politicians being politicians, their words usually don't live up to their actions."

Other voters worried about the impact of a tax cut on the schools.

Harold Price, 47, of Springfield, an elementary school principal, said he voted for Beyer because he was concerned that eliminating the car tax would take money from public education.

"I think it's a great idea, but there was not enough information about how the revenue would be made up," he said. "Schools -- I think that's the scary part. I think it would significantly impact education. If you look at the university level -- the cuts they went through in the Allen administration -- they're just starting to recover."

Gilmore clearly benefited from the popularity of Gov. George Allen (R)and from a booming state economy. Seven out of 10 voters said they had a favorable impression of Allen, and nearly three-quarters of these voters supported Gilmore. And among the 8 in 10 who thought the state's economy was "excellent" or "good," Gilmore held a double-digit lead over his Democratic opponent.

Eight in 10 voters complained that the gubernatorial campaign was too negative, with nearly half saying both candidates were equally to blame for the negative tone of the race.

Sophie Donlin, 56, of Occoquan, said she almost didn't vote because she was so upset by negative television ads. In the end, she decided to support Beyer because he's from Northern Virginia and because she believed he would direct more money to his own region. "I thought he'd help us more than someone who is from Richmond," Donlin said.

Other voters said the campaign left them confused about what the candidates stood for -- particularly Beyer, who many said defined himself by attacking Gilmore.

"I really don't know what Beyer stood for," said Thekla Tuttle, 67, of Woodbridge, although she said she did vote for the Democrat. "I know what the other stood for, and I didn't like it."

© 1997 The Washington Post Company

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