One minor effect of the presidential election seems to be a temporary drop-off in mail to the ombudsman. Readers probably are still absorbing the results of this bruising, angst-producing contest. I'm sure that many, whether elated or angry, are simply glad it's over. That President Bush, and the Republicans generally, won in a rather decisive fashion, unlike the deadlocked situation four years ago, also tends to diminish fighting over the results.
And The Post has provided several days of rich and comprehensive coverage, with lots of first-rate reporting, writing, analysis, statistics, and several excellent charts and graphics to make the results clear visually as well. So there hasn't been much to complain about on that score, at least so far.
So, what to write about? One thing that seems interesting is looking at the vote from inside the newsroom and wondering what this election says about where news organizations could do better.
The Post's daily tracking poll, on the eve of the election, showed it 49 percent to 48 percent for Bush, a figure that was rather meaningless statistically because of the margin of error, but was, in fact, going in the right direction in giving the edge to Bush, who won by a 51 to 48 percent (3.5 million-vote) margin.
But what turned out to be the most interesting and attention-getting finding of any poll came in response to a question asked in the nationwide survey of voters exiting the polls on Tuesday by the National Election Pool consortium. When asked what issue mattered most to them, the exit poll results showed that 22 percent of voters chose "moral values." That outranked the percentage of voters who answered jobs and the economy (20 percent), terrorism (19 percent), Iraq (15 percent) and health care (8 percent).
In The Post on Thursday, the headline over a story about the Republicans said: "Victory Bears Out Emphasis on Values." The one over the Democrats said: "Need to Connect With Religious, Rural Voters Noted." You could also apply that second headline to a sizable segment of the major press organizations in this country and not be far off.
The exit poll showed that 80 percent of those who cited "moral values" as the No. 1 issue voted for Bush. That is an important statistic. Yet the "moral values" question is not one that is asked directly in The Post's poll, or many others, during the campaign. Rather, the question to registered or likely voters about what is the single most important issue for them is usually accompanied by a list of topics that journalists think are important -- the war against terrorism, the war in Iraq, jobs, health care, etc., and a catch-all category of "something else." That is revealing because it reflects what we focus on and what we, as journalists, are interested in and think encompass the decisive factors for the country. These are, indeed, big and decisive factors for many people. But that list doesn't single out what is also a very large, but harder to define, thread running through American society.
It is well known that a significant number of Americans are regular churchgoers, and that about 23 percent of the electorate are white, evangelical, born-again Christians. In contrast to this, I think it is fair to say that most newsrooms of the big news-gathering organizations in this country are fairly urban, urbane, issue-oriented and largely, though not exclusively, secular places that are not nearly as plugged in to the world of "moral values" voters as they are into the world of journalistic and policy issues that are much easier to identify and get a grip on.
The Post actually did quite a good job in sending its reporters all over the country throughout this long campaign. That reporting, early on, highlighted the states, and many of the key issues, where the outcome of this national election would be decided. Yet the "moral values" issue that is central to many socially conservative Americans did not surface in news and analytical stories with anywhere near the power and prominence that it did after Election Day.
"Moral values" strikes me as a loaded, divisive phrase in that it can imply that some have the key to what is moral and right. And the subject, to be sure, is hard to capture reportorially. But it will still be there, perhaps with a more benign designator, and four years from now, I'll bet, there will be a specific question on this issue on many polls and it will be the specific focus of a lot more stories. Maybe there will even be one or two more news bureaus in the South and Midwest.
Speaking of the South, is it only the Democrats who don't seem to know what's going on there? Does the press need to do a better job at finding out what's behind that huge swath of red that colors the political map of the southern and central portions of the country?
"Politics is less intellectual than we think it is," one of the editors here said to me about these subjects. "People view leadership in a way that we don't see it in Washington. Twenty years after Ronald Reagan," he says, "the press still doesn't understand the right, or religious people. And it is not so simple as just who goes to church. There is something else driving people. And why is the South so red? Race is gone as the issue. There is a new South that we don't understand."
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.