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
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The biggest social-issue event in the past year or two, of course, has been the acceleration of the drive for same-sex marriage and its court-imposed advent in Massachusetts. Because there has been little polling on the relation of same-sex marriage to presidential voting (only the Time national polls seem to have thought to test it), a large share of any speculation is bound to be circumstantial. But it did seem that the July referendum on same-sex marriage in Missouri marked a turning point in the Bush-Kerry matchup there--the Kerry campaign soon afterward pulled its advertising--and that a widely reported controversy over putting a prohibition on gay marriage on Ohio's November ballot coincided with an underperformance by Kerry in a state that has experienced a weak economy during the Bush years.

The controversy over the homosexuality of outgoing New Jersey governor James McGreevey has come in a state Al Gore carried by 16 percentage points in 2000, but where Bush has unexpectedly pulled nearly even in recent surveys. And Scott Rasmussen, the only pollster doing public daily tracking of the national vote for the House, has noted that Republican surges often seem to coincide with elevation of the gay-marriage debate in Washington.

The actions and reactions of the two national tickets suggest a considerable degree of consciousness of the changed dynamic of social issues, particularly same-sex marriage. Kerry attacked the idea of amending the Constitution in his Boston acceptance speech, but has hardly returned to the subject since, except to agree with voters who want to write a ban into their state constitutions. In his war-centered New York acceptance speech, Bush spent a couple of pointed sentences putting space between himself and Kerry on same-sex marriage and the judges willing to legislate it. Bush defends traditional marriage and judicial conservatism in most of his stump speeches, and these are reportedly among his surest applause lines.

At the level of Senate and House races, Republicans have made far less of a visible effort to position themselves to the right of Democrats on social issues than has the Bush campaign. Many GOP incumbents and candidates are undoubtedly still operating on the "stealth" model, assuming that social issues are mainly for "motivating the base."

But compared with the past, a more public debate entails minimal risk to Republicans. The MSNBC polling suggests there is no significant voting stream or region this year--even those previously seen as socially liberal--where social issues are anything other than a potentially grave threat to the Democratic base. In the most recent Time poll, which reflects huge progress for Bush since July in the foreign-policy debate, social issues still provide a roughly equal Bush advantage over Kerry, and there are hints that Ralph Nader, an outright backer of same-sex marriage, is gaining at Kerry's expense among social liberals.

Moreover, the latest Time poll finds as many undecided voters among social-issue voters as among the much larger number of voters keyed to foreign policy. New anti-gay-marriage ads put up by an independent-expenditure group headed by Gary Bauer could help Bush in Michigan and Pennsylvania, two vote-rich states where, according to the MSNBC polling, social issues are already a strong net plus for Bush.

Because of 9/11, 2004 was always destined to be a wartime election. The president was right in believing that at a time of unnerving headlines in Iraq, he had to make the case for his war strategy head on. But the big surprise in this year's issue mix is the growing number of voters who believe there is a values war here at home. The good news for Bush and Republicans is that voters who reach that conclusion are anything but polarized on how that war should come out.

Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon are principals of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm