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.
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