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Moral Values Malarkey

This Against the Grain commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

Let's try to snuff this election's new Big Theory before it becomes Conventional Wisdom, although it's probably too late.

The subject matter is "moral values." The theory is this: Kerry lost because he was very unpopular with people who believe moral values are the most important issues. This group of values voters is growing and Democrats are doomed until they can win them over.

The evidence comes from one exit poll question: Which issue mattered most in deciding how you voted for president? Here are the results:

18% 80%
80% 18%
14% 86%
73% 26%
77% 23%
43% 57%
73% 26%

Analysts and commentators have been stunned that moral issues would trump the other biggies. From this single result, where moral values trounced economy/jobs by a whole two percentage points, both gloaters and mourners have extrapolated a fatal flaw in the Democratic Party and all it encompasses. An industry of values voter literature has mushroomed in just the few days since the election. It's misguided.

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While the nexus of issues boiled into the words "moral values" certainly were a big factor in this election, it's being exaggerated partly because of the oddities of the poll itself and partly because the Big Theory conforms with what Republican strategists want you to believe.

First, the poll: If the poll had been worded or constructed only slightly differently, moral values would not have been the top issue. We're building a worldview out of a small, odd vista.

If, for example, one of the issues on the list was a combined "terrorism and Iraq," it would have been the top concern of 34 percent of the electorate and nobody would be talking about moral values.

If "taxes, jobs and the economy" was on the list as one item instead of two, it would have been the topper at 25 percent.

If, say, abortion rights, gay marriage and moral values were all on the list separately, the numbers would be very different.

Who knows what the exit poll would have found if "truth in government" were an option. Polls are fickle.

As for the notion that that the legion of values voters is exploding, I don't see it.

In 2000, exit poll victims were not given moral values as an option on their "most important issues" menu (partly because it would have just been seen as a question about Bill and Monica). So we don't know really know whether the slice of the electorate concerned with such things has grown in Bush's term, as is purported.

We do know that in a similar question from the 1996, "family values" was the top concern of 17 percent (just behind the winner, "health of the economy"), and that group went for Bob Dole over Bill Clinton. So, the 17 percent whose top worry was family values and whose choice was Republican turned into 22 percent worried about moral values in 2004. A factor in this election? Sure. But not a hurricane; perhaps a tropical depression.

If you want to see a polling hurricane, consider that "terrorism" has never been any kind of concern before. That's a sea change. No foreign policy or national security has gotten into the top four issues in the last three elections. This year, as we saw, terror and Iraq were the prime issues for more than a third of the voters.

Next problem: what are these moral values? (A friend of mine e-mailed me and asked, "What are these moral values? I hope they don't take over local values like Wal-Mart has.")

Now, we all have a sense of what is meant by moral values in this election: gay marriage, stem cell research, late-term abortion, prayer in school and several other similar issues. What it really refers to is being against gay marriage, stem cell research and late-term abortion. Being adamantly for stem cell research would exclude you from being part of the moral values crowd.

Moral values, as a phrase on an exit poll, is a Rorschach Test; to a great degree, the question is like asking, "What is most important to you – jobs, terrorism, health care, education, or the issue that is really the most important issue to you." It's tautological.

And in the code of politics and rhetoric, the phrase "moral values" really now just refers to a set of Bush's positions. So the exit poll question is even dumber; of course people who think moral values are most important will go for Bush.

For these reasons, the exit poll question that is changing the world really doesn't tell us very much. The political conclusions people are drawing from this narrow finding are obviously pretty flimsy.

For instance, since it is now an accepted crisis for the Democrats that the values voters who were 22 percent of the electorate went for the Republican by an 80-18 margin, it must follow that it's a crisis for Republicans that the 20 percent who care most about the economy and jobs went 80-18 for the Democrat.

Is it a crisis for the Republicans that the huge, 45 percent slice of the electorate that describes itself as moderate went for Kerry 54-45?

Is it a crisis for the Republicans first time voters went 53-46 for Kerry? Doesn't that make an ominous sign for the future?

It's argued that the Democrats are in hot water because the rural voters who made up 16 percent of the electorate went 59-40 for Bush. Is it a crisis for the Republicans that the 13 percent that live in big cities went 60-39 for Kerry?

The voting behavior of Americans does divvy up into some pretty stark and feuding neighborhoods. Rural voters and heavy church-goers vote Republican. City people and church-avoiders vote Democratic. These cleavages have persisted in several elections.

Those divides may be a crisis for the country; they may describe a culture war, at least for the politically active. It is not an inherent crisis for Democrats alone. And the inability to win the allegiance of people who care most about the amorphous thing currently called moral values is not at the top of the Democrats problems. Republicans, however, want people to believe that the Democrats are simply categorically different than the good people who care about moral things.

After debunking this theory du jour with such vitriol, permit me the Kerryesque weakness of making a few qualifiers.

I do think many active Democrats – appointees, consultants, volunteers, and partisans – have a deep disrespect for religious people, old-fashioned people and country people. It's palpable and it's deplorable and Democrats deny it. And it means that party activists and related groups bring to forum issues that are in fact unpopular, like support for gay marriage.

I also think many active Republicans are just as snotty, they just pretend better.

And I think many religious people, old-fashioned people and country people have a profound disrespect for "liberals" and people they disagree with and people who aren't like them. But that is sort of reverse snobbery so it's okay.

Democratic politicians – at least the ones who score big in national politics – have a fundamental conflict; they always purport to represent people who aren't very much like them; they are rich and white and pedigreed and claim to represent the poor or the working class or gays or minorities. Republicans don't have that problem; they tend to represent themselves and their kind.

This democratic impulse may be noble and right, but it's hard to pull off. Bill Clinton could do it (though it did his party little lasting good). But when an Al Gore or a John Kerry does it, it looks inauthentic and it makes people uncomfortable. It makes people feel like they don't share their moral values. (Indeed, Kerry embodied icons of being a values voter's worst nightmare – liberal, from Massachusetts, married to a rich, foreign, billionaire heiress.)

Democrats will never be the favorite party of people who put gay marriage and other "moral values" at the top of their list. And if the Democrats' response to the moral values concept is a sanctimonious "well, starting a war and killing innocent Iraqis isn't a moral value" then they have a crisis.

But many Democrats have done and will do a better job of speaking to a far bigger group than values voters -- religious people and church-goers who balance many issues in a complicated way and who are not hardcore partisans.

This years' failure is not intrinsic to what the Democratic Party is or what it might stand for. Family values were a very big deal 20 years ago in the reign of Ronald Reagan. (One of the more visible advocates was Democrat Tipper Gore.) Yet Democrat Bill Clinton then won two terms. The so-called values voters' crisis can be solved by the right candidate. It's not brain surgery.

The Democrats' inability to find such candidates and then let them lead, however, appears to be a very difficult condition to cure.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of, based in Washington.

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Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones.

By Dick Meyer

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