The Magazine

The Rise of the Values Voter

From the October 11, 2004 issue: The political megatrend nobody wants to talk about.

Oct 11, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 05 • By FRANK CANNON and JEFFREY BELL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

IF YOU HAD TO PICK a single reason why the Democratic party is weaker at all levels than at any time in the last 50 years, it is the transformation of moral-values issues into an overwhelming Republican asset.

In recent presidential cycles, post-election polling found that social issues like abortion, while invariably a mild plus for Republicans, were cited by a relatively small segment of the electorate as a prime motive for voting one way or the other. Moreover, social conservatism was seen as good in the South and heartland and bad on the coasts, making it dubious as a national theme or as a subject of campaign commercials. Conventional wisdom among GOP political consultants has been to mobilize socially conservative voters by a stealth strategy of quietly "passing the word" to "our people."

New polling by Time and MSNBC/Knight-Ridder suggests that all this has changed. The proportion of voters who say they are keying their vote on "moral values issues like gay marriage and abortion" has gone up sharply--to a level of 15 to 18 percent, according to five national polls commissioned by Time and conducted by Schulman, Ronca, and Bucuvalas since July. More important, the profile of such voters is no longer definable in the vocabulary of polarization and divisiveness. The most recent Time poll (taken September 21-23) has George W. Bush winning socially driven voters by a lopsided 70 to 18 percent. If not for these voters, according to the poll, Bush would be trailing John Kerry by 5 points instead of leading by 4.

These numbers would be striking enough if the only available data concerned the national popular vote. But as MSNBC's mid-September polls in 10 pivotal states in the Electoral College make clear, the GOP advantage on social issues is even more salient in the struggle for the handful of states both sides agree will determine the presidential outcome.

MSNBC's survey firm, Mason Dixon Polling & Research, offered "Moral Issues and Family Values" as one of the options on the question, "Which one of the following issues will be most important in determining your vote for President this year?" Anywhere from 12 percent (Pennsylvania) to 16 percent (Missouri) made this selection. Bush's lead over Kerry among these voters ranged from not quite 8-1 in Oregon to more than 10-1 in Ohio and more than 12-1 in Missouri. Unlike many past polls on social issues, there was no significant regional pattern. Eastern swing states like New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and western states like Arizona and Oregon were just as likely to favor Bush overwhelmingly on moral and family issues as were heartland states. (No southern states were among the 10 polled by MSNBC.)

In every state where Bush led (8 of the 10), his "moral issues and family values" margin was more than his overall lead. In other words, in the 8 Bush-leaning swing states, Bush trailed Kerry on all other issues combined. In fact, in only one other issue offered by MSNBC, "Terrorism and Homeland Security," did Bush have a clear lead over Kerry. In both the state polls by MSNBC and the series of national polls by Time, Kerry had strong leads in the economic issue cluster and health care.

Interestingly, voters who select social issues as their prime mover are disproportionately female, both nationally and in the swing states. This seems to account for Bush's increased strength (for a Republican) among female voters. Terrorism-centered voters, the other issue group favoring Bush, tilt toward the male side. So much for "security moms" as an explanation for Kerry's unexpected weakness among women.

Why has the social-issue cluster become so much more favorable to Republicans all over the country? Part of the reason is a gradual voter trend on abortion. After trailing roughly 3-2 in the early 1990s, pro-lifers pulled even with pro-choicers in the late 1990s and may enjoy a small but growing advantage among all voters today. This trend has coincided with the prominence of the often graphic debate over partial-birth abortion. What is undeniable is that Democratic candidates at all levels of politics have become markedly less inclined to talk about abortion rights.