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Postmortems 'R' Us

Dotty Lynch is the Senior Political Editor for CBS News. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points

I woke up in a sweat the other night. I dreamed I got an e-mail slugged BLOG. When I clicked on it, it read: "DNC elects the Pope as Chair; AFL-CIO executive comes in second." Then I realized I had one too many election postmortems and it was time to swear off any more conversations about the role of the Internet, moral values and the 2004 election.

But old habits, or even new ones, are hard to break. And every time I hear or read another expert on the topic of moral values and how they were (check one) a) missed by the media; b) overplayed by the media; c) all about evangelicals; d) not at all about evangelicals; e) an artifice of a bad poll question; or, f) all of the above, I can't resist getting back into the fray.

The idea that issues of religion and morality were missed by the press covering the election is particularly absurd. The political digest Hotline even created a name for it, "Pulpit Politics," in May of 2004, and virtually every news organization, including CBS News, covered the topics of religion and morality on a regular basis. The reason the phrase "moral values" was put back on the exit poll in 2004 after a hiatus since 1992 was precisely because these issues were back on the radar screen this year.

Typically "moral values" is shorthand for "conservative social policy questions" like abortion, gay marriage, prayer in school and embryonic stem cell research, which are voting issues for a sizable number of people. And, as the exit poll reflected, 80 percent of the 22 percent of voters who picked this answer – instead of terrorism, Iraq, health care, the economy and jobs, taxes, and education - voted for President Bush. A pretty good indication they interpreted the phrase as referring to those issues.

In addition, the president has cast much of his agenda in terms of right and wrong so Bush voters may have viewed their support for his foreign and domestic policies in moral terms as well. Thirty-five percent of Bush voters nationwide and 38 percent in Ohio picked moral values as their top reason for supporting the president. Forty-one percent of white evangelical voters and 32 percent of weekly churchgoers checked it off as numero uno.

So why is this a bad question? It tells me volumes about the relative importance of values inside the Republican electorate and among religious voters overall.

I understand the GOP's reluctance to seize on this result as the dominant explanation of the Bush vote. They want a broader interpretation of the president's mandate and don't want to be too beholden to the Christian right. The Bush-Cheney campaign played down the gay marriage referenda before the election because they did not want to turn off the more moderate swing voters.

But what really intrigues me is why so many intellectuals are so upset about this analysis. Louis Menand in The New Yorker, Pew Research President Andy Kohut and my colleague Dick Meyer, in strong pieces here and in the Washington Post, are in a lather about the question and the interpretation of the result. Yes, all moral values are not conservative ones; the Pew Center has documented that. But some are, and some voters care passionately about them and care more about them than the "issues" of terrorism or the economy.

A couple of Washington Democrats who traveled to South Dakota to campaign for Tom Daschle reported to me that they were stunned when they went into very poor trailer parks to find voters cared more about killing babies and gay people getting married than about jobs and health care. "Why can't they see that by voting for John Thune they are voting against their economic self-interest?" they wondered. (By the way, 40 percent of Thune's voters chose moral values as their main reason for voting for him.)

These bewildered liberals pat their rich friends on the back for voting against their self-interest when they vote Democratic and have rarely complained about religious figures in politics when their names were Martin Luther King, Robert Drinan, Daniel Berrigan or William Sloane Coffin. But somehow religious conservatives are out of bounds when it comes to getting people mobilized around their moral issues, and voters who care more about culture than economics are painted as not very intelligent.

Democrats who are chewing over the meaning of moral values may not be quite ready to elect the Pope as head of the DNC. But finding a way to talk to voters about values and respecting people of faith are two action items which that much maligned "artifice of a polling question" has put squarely in the center of the political dialogue.

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