Moral Values? Foreign, Economic Policy Mattered More

Posted November 15, 2004 at 5:58pm

Shortly after the election, a half-serious Chris Matthews suggested that perhaps the media should treat the vast part of America now known as the “red states” as if they were countries, sending out foreign correspondents to explain the obviously inscrutable “natives” who bucked the political and media elite and re-elected President Bush.

There has been a lot of confusion about the recent election, and the media aren’t the only ones having a difficult time figuring out what happened. Democrats, political pundits and even some Republicans have misread the results of Nov. 2. Here’s what really happened.

[IMGCAP(1)] Bush and the Republican Party won a decisive and important victory based on the key issues of national security and the economy. Moral values and a huge increase in evangelical Christians at the polls weren’t the major reason. Progress in winning over swing voters — women, seniors, Hispanics, Catholics and middle-income earners — were. The victory was not only broad but deep, solidifying the GOP’s majority-party status.

For the past two weeks, however, Democrats and much of the media have been in denial, attributing Bush’s win to the rise of moral values as the defining issue of 2004. That view ignores the reality of this election, the electorate and the state of the Democratic Party.

Let’s start with the fact that moral values are not issues at all. Actually, they provide context for issues like war and national security, jobs, education and health care. For that reason, moral values should never have been included in the exit polls (as they weren’t in ’96 and 2000).

Calling the moral values question a “hot-button catch phrase,” ABC News’ polling director, Gary Langer, wrote in The New York Times on Nov. 6 that its inclusion on the list of voter concerns in exit polls “created a deep distortion.”

He’s right. According to most surveys prior to the election, the real issues that drove voters in 2004 were national security concerns and economic issues.

I spent Election Day on the decision desk of one of the networks analyzing exit polls early in the day and helping call races later in the evening. When we saw the first of three waves of interviews, the numbers weren’t favorable for Bush, but the initial sample showed an overabundance of female voters.

Those familiar with the exit polling process knew that the results at that stage were highly unstable. Unfortunately, the numbers that leaked out early in the day lacked all context and gave an incorrect impression that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) was winning.

In fact, it was Bush who was winning — and winning big — on key issues. For instance, on the question of “Who do you trust to best handle the war on terror?” Bush beat Kerry by a whopping 49 percent to 31 percent.

But what Democrats can’t face — and the reason why they have made “right-wing fundamentalists” the scapegoat for their loss — is the fact that Bush also won on the question “Who do you trust to handle the economy?” by 40 percent to 37 percent.

To do otherwise — that is, to accept Kerry’s loss on what many saw as their strength, the economy — would also require accepting another unpleasant reality, that Democratic ideas, or a lack thereof, cost them the election.

So, many Democrats, in a tone reminiscent of ancient Romans shortly after the arrival of the Visigoths, have tried to explain their losses by blaming an invasion of “ignorant” fundamentalist voters into the process, driven by their antipathy to gay marriage and abortion.

Simply not true. The polls show that the percentage of voters who said they went to church at least once a week was unchanged from the 2000 election — 42 percent. With turnout up substantially, it’s not surprising that more religious people voted — so did members of most groups. All told, their proportion of the electorate, and Bush’s support from them, remained roughly the same.

What changed was Bush’s success in attracting swing voters. In 2000, Gore won 54 percent of the women’s vote while Bush got 43 percent. This year, Bush improved to 48 percent while Kerry received 51 percent. Security moms do exist.

Bush also gained with seniors. After losing this important group 47 percent to 50 percent in 2000, he won them this year 52 percent to 47 percent. His increase with Catholic voters was identical. Bush also made more progress with middle-income voters ($50,000-$75,000), whom he won in 2000 by a margin of 51 percent to 46 percent. This year, he carried them 56 percent to 43 percent.

None of this is surprising. In a New Models survey conducted after Kerry’s promise in the debates not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $200,000, we found that more than 60 percent of voters said they believed Kerry would raise taxes on people like them.

But perhaps the most encouraging result for Republicans was Bush’s increased popularity with Hispanic voters. His vote share rose from 35 percent in 2000 to 44 percent this year — an increase that translated into similar support for Republican House candidates as well. Bush’s progress with Hispanic voters is particularly noteworthy given the fact that the share of white voters actually decreased from 81 percent of the electorate in 2000 to 77 percent in 2004.

Certainly, moral values played a role in this election — but they always do in some fashion. To dismiss Bush’s victory as nothing more than an aberration of religious fanaticism, as many Democrats and some of the media elite have done is dead wrong.

Bush significantly improved his numbers over 2000 — crossing the 60 million mark in the popular vote and winning with an indisputable 3-point margin, which makes him the first presidential candidate to win with more than 50 percent since his father in 1988.

An even better sign of the depth of Bush’s strength, however, was the breadth of the GOP victory, especially in the Senate. Republicans won seven of the eight competitive Senate races — Alaska, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida and South Dakota. Only in Colorado, where Democrats nominated a centrist, did Democrats win.

The bottom line is that Republicans and Democrats kept pace with each other when it came to turning out their bases in record numbers. Where Bush won was in the middle by building a larger majority coalition based on his leadership and the strength of his ideas on the big issues of national security and the economy. That’s reality.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.