a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Moral values trump strengthlyness

Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 8th, 2004

Reliably angry centrist Jeff Jarvis is having none of it — this whole “moral values” voting thing is a myth:

And one more issue, as Glenn Reynolds points out, is that big media and the left will latch onto this faux statistic to argue that all the people who voted for Bush are actually religious reactionaries, which is unfair to them and ultimately condescending to the electorate and brushes off all the other real issues that voters considered. It’s also a tactical mistake, for it only makes it seem as if the religious reactionary fringe is much bigger than it actually it (sic); this complaint only thus gives them more clout in media and politics.

As usual, Glenn is only right when it’s all but unavoidable: if anyone ever argued that “all” Bush voters are actually religious reactionaries, that would of course be wrong. The actual argument is that this group gave Bush the essential core group for his victory.

Let’s look at the numbers: according to CNN, 22% of voters polled listed “moral values” as their top concern, and 80% of this group voted for Bush. The next highest concerns were the economy (20%; 80% voted for Kerry), terrorism (19%; 86% for Bush), and Iraq (15%; 73% for Kerry). Do the math, and you see that about 18% U.S. voters voted for Bush mainly because of “moral values”, while about 16% voted for him mainly because of his perceived edge in fighting terrorism.

The effect is even clearer in Ohio where 20% of Ohio voters chose Bush on the basis of “moral values,” compared to the 15% who chose him because terrorism was their main concern. Add in the factor of evangelical volunteer fervor,* and it’s clear that the “moral values” crowd won this election for Bush.


Jarvis has a second line of defense against what he considers the “moral values” fallacy, namely that they’re vague and meaningless, and that everybody has moral values. As to the latter, of course, he’s right; we urban dwellers often have moral values as nearly fully developed as God-fearing folk anywhere.

But the argument that “moral values” is vague neatly ignores facts: this allegedly vague identifier broke overwhelmingly for Bush. So a group of people with a clearly (self-)definable characteristic — voting for Bush — agreed much more often than their Kerry counterparts that this thing called “moral values” was their most important reason for supporting Bush. There’s something there. It ain’t Iraq, it ain’t terrorism, and it ain’t vague. It’s just undefined by the exit poll.

Now, I’m not completely sure what is meant by “moral values” either (cough homos cough), and more study certainly couldn’t hurt (cough getting married free as you please cough). I do know Bush made a pitch for the FMA back in the spring; far from alienating a moderate center of the electorate as I once hoped, the strategems seem to have brought far more of a crucial “moral values” demographic to the polls. That, some nice weekly roundtables at the White House with Christian conservatives* and a round or five of robo-calling that must have cost someone a bit of change.

Folks on the right like John Cole consider this view of the election disproven too. While I intend to read even the unbearably smarmy David Brooks’ take that Cole links to, I haven’t got through all of them. But here’s the key part of one analysis, by Paul Freedman, that Cole cites:

Much has been made of the fact that “moral values” topped the list of voters’ concerns, mentioned by more than a fifth (22 percent) of all exit-poll respondents as the “most important issue” of the election. It’s true that by four percentage points, people in states where gay marriage was on the ballot were more likely than people elsewhere to mention moral issues as a top priority (25.0 vs. 20.9 percent). But again, the causality is unclear. Did people in these states mention moral issues because gay marriage was on the ballot? Or was it on the ballot in places where people were already more likely to be concerned about morality?

More to the point, the morality gap didn’t decide the election. Voters who cited moral issues as most important did give their votes overwhelmingly to Bush (80 percent to 18 percent), and states where voters saw moral issues as important were more likely to be red ones. But these differences were no greater in 2004 than in 2000. If you’re trying to explain why the president’s vote share in 2004 is bigger than his vote share in 2000, values don’t help.

There’s a lot to take on here, but in brief: 1) Freedman’s suggestion of simultaneous causation (moral issues mentions caused by initiatives? or initiatives caused by moral issues concerns?) is interesting — but at any rate concedes that this variety of morality drove the vote for this segment of the electorate. 2) The fact, if true, that the “morality gap” was no greater than in 2000 proves next to nothing: (a) it’s arguable the “morality gap” helped give Bush the election in 2000 as well, and/or (b) at any rate, it’s not the gap, it’s the quantity. If “morality gap” voters turned out heavily perhaps even more heavily than in 2000, whether the gap stayed the same width isn’t all that important.

That is, even in the (unlikely) event that the anti-gay initiatives themselves added little to turnout or changing voter’s minds about their presidential vote, “moral values” voters appear to be one of the largest and most fervent blocks of Bush supporters.

Why all the fuss?

What’s at issue is the underlying hierarchy of reasons Bush voters voted as they did, because that shapes the kind of ‘mandate’ Bush has. As things now stand, and whether his confused anti-terror/pro-Iraq-war allies believe it or not, Bush is likelier to cut and run from Iraq than he is to cut and run from the FMA or bible-thumping judicial appointments. His most numerous and fervent backers care more about the latter, and I assert that Bush’s desire to push his domestic agenda is foremost with him, too.

As Michael Kinsley pointed out on the Tavis Smiley Show the other day, the great thing about (relatively) close elections is that everybody’s right — it doesn’t take much for your pet hypothesis to provide the straw that broke John Kerry’s back. So why are generally sensible if hypermoderate people like Jarvis, and honest if hyperpartisan people like Cole tying themselves in knots to deny the likeliest interpretation of these results?

One explanation is obviously that “moral values” voter undercut the favored tough guy interpretation of Bush’s already narrow win — roughly, anti-terror strengthlyness (TM). Another is that the sub rosa, nudge-nudge-wink-wink style of campaign and coordination with religious leaders* is in itself an indictment of the way Bush campaign and their supporters see democracy — not an open campaign of ideas, but a process to be gamed away from prying eyes. I may try another time to connect this particular dot with others, like the police-assisted “Miami model” intimidation of protesters at Bush rallies and drive-throughs, or structural shenanigans like the Texas redistricting saga, but for now, see Jonathan Chait.

To me, this looks like more of a “moral values” presidency and political coalition than it is a “terror fightin” one. I hope I’m wrong. But if not, it will be interesting to see which “you just don’t get terrorism” libertarians (like Glenn Reynolds, at least nominally), conservatives (like Tacitus), or “Bush Democrats” (like Michael Totten) will realize first that it won’t be them, but the Christian right who Bush will “dance with who brung ya” when push comes to shove.

Of course, they could always join Charles Johnson and start banging the “Islam: Religion of Peace” drum. Onward Christian soldiers! It’ll be a crusade after all.


* Evangelicals Say they led Charge for the GOP,” Alan Cooperman and Thomas B. Edsall, Washington Post, 11/8/2004. See also Bush Secured Victory in Florida by Veering From Beaten Path, by Abby Goodnough and Don Van Natta, New York Times, 11/7/2004.

EDITS, 9:45pm: subtitles added, 11/9: minor edits – “compared to”, “(sic)”, Jarvis link correction.

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