As pundits and analysts debate the impact of Barack Obama's support for gay marriage on the 2012 election, Matthew Dowd, a top strategist of the 2004 Bush campaign, writes at the Huffington Post that "marriage initiatives in 2004 on the ballot in 11 states had no discernable effect on turnout among conservatives."
In 2004, I worked on President Bush's campaign as chief strategist and was deeply involved in examining and determining which issues would motivate conservatives and evangelicals. In all that analysis preparing for the campaign, not a single social issue rose to the top five motivators (not abortion, not gay marriage, not a one). The motivators for that election were national security issues, issues concerning the budget and taxes, and issues surrounding the economy. And these are the issues the campaign put all their resources behind and I constantly advocated internally as our focus.
But the 2004 exit poll seems to contradict Dowd's claim. The poll asked voters what their "most important issue" was. "Moral values" came in first at 22 percent:
The "economy/jobs" came in second place at 20 percent, "terrorism" was third at 19 percent, and "Iraq" was fourth at 15 percent. Of course, it would be fair to combine the issues of Iraq and terrorism (34 percent) and say that national security was the most important issue in 2004.
But according to Dowd, "not a single social issue rose to the top five motivators" for conservatives. If that's true, why did 22 percent of the electorate rank "moral values" as their top issue and break 80%-18% for Bush over Kerry?
The importance of different issues obviously changes from election to election, and there's been some increase in support for gay marriage since 2004. So it's not clear how the issue will move votes in 2012. Will it increase turnout among younger voters for Obama? Will it hurt him with socially conservative Latino voters who backed him in 2008?
But social issues certainly seemed to have had an impact in 2004, and it's hard to believe that the 22 percent of the electorate most concerned about "moral values" has vanished in eight years.