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November 12, 2004
Pew Research: Moral Values Far Overblown In Exit Polling

It's probably too late to change the conventional wisdom on the presidential election now, but a Pew Research Center analysis of exit polling and their own new survey throws cold water on the notion that "moral values" provided the primary motivation for voters. Even for those who did prioritize morality first, it doesn't reflexively relate to conservative outlook:

When "moral values" was included in poll questions, it was named more often than any other issue. But when voters were just asked to name the issue most important in their vote for president without being given a list of answers moral values trailed the war in Iraq and the economy, according to the Pew survey.

"The advantage of the open-ended question is it tells you what's at the top of mind for voters what they're thinking," said Cliff Zukin, a veteran pollster and professor of public policy at Rutgers University. "Much too much has been made of the moral values answer."

Suggesting "moral values" tripled its likelihood of being selected as a primary motivation, Pew found. In its control sample, where the question was open-ended (no choices provided), only 9% chose moral values; it tied with terrorism, oddly enough, and trailed Iraq (27%) and the economy (14%). But when given on a list of choices, 27% selected moral values, with Iraq sliding to 22%. And Pew found that "moral values" extended beyond abortion, into areas that tend to favor liberals:

The Pew poll found that voters' reasons for picking "moral values" varies. Just over four in 10 of those who picked "moral values" from the list mentioned social issues like gay marriage and abortion, but others talked about qualities like religion, helping the poor, and candidates' honesty and strength of leadership.

"We did not see any indication that social conservative issues like abortion, gay rights and stem cell research were anywhere near as important as the economy and Iraq," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "'Moral values' is a phrase that's very attractive to people."

I always thought that the "moral values" meme provided a too-easy simplification of the presidential election. The media loved it because it gave them a handy way to discredit the red-state voters as a bunch of ignorant hicks who wanted to create Jesusland out of Middle America. The Christian conservatives, intriguingly, played along with the mass media in order to magnify the clout they showed in their support for George Bush. No one asked why the war wouldn't be first in the minds of votes, during wartime when our soldiers face real bullets and our homeland had been attacked.

Sorry to disappoint the Janeane Garofalos and Michael Moores of the world, but Americans voted for Bush for very rational reasons. Moral values played a part, as they do in every important decision people make, liberal or conservative, but they're applied to specific issues. The American electorate is far more sophisticated than the media or groups vying for power wish to acknowledge.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 12, 2004 5:47 AM

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