Media overplayed “moral values” as “decisive” election issue

Exit polls conducted during the November 2 presidential election showed that more people (22 percent of voters) selected “moral values” as their primary issue of concern than any other issue, including terrorism, Iraq, or the economy, and that 80 percent of those who picked the “moral values” issue voted for President George W. Bush. Since then, many members of the media have accepted as fact the notion that “moral values” was the decisive issue of the campaign. But those who propound this conventional wisdom offer little to explain or define what voters meant by “moral values.”

On the November 9 edition of CNN's Inside Politics, host Judy Woodruff suggested that Democrats fared poorly in the election because of a disadvantage in the “moral values” arena: “How do the Democrats close the gap on this 'moral values' question?” Despite the absence of any concrete definition, other media figures have echoed the idea that “moral values” was the pivotal issue of the election. Here are a few examples:

  • Dan Rather (CBS anchor): “Moral values -- we'll give you a look at the surprise issue that trumped the war, terror, and the economy as the decisive issue in the election.” [CBS Evening News, 11/3/04]
  • Anderson Cooper (CNN anchor): “Well, for months, the presidential campaigns and pundits have debated whether the driving issues of this election would be Iraq or the economy. Turns out it was neither. Moral values ruled this election, with 22 percent of voters citing moral issues as their No. 1 concern.” [CNN, Anderson Cooper 360, 11/3/04]
  • Paula Zahn (CNN anchor): “Tonight, it is the decisive issue, the one pollsters didn't see coming -- millions of people voting their moral values. ... The exit polls are quite stunning, at least to some folks looking at these numbers for the first time, when it appears that moral issues trumped just about every other issue on the map here.” [CNN, Paula Zahn Now, 11/3/04]
  • Pat Buchanan (MSNBC analyst and former presidential candidate): “It wasn't the economy or the war in Iraq or even the war on terror. Exit polls tell us moral values were most important in choosing a president.” [MSNBC, Scarborough Country, 11/3/04]
  • Bill Plante (CBS White House correspondent): “In the end, it was not the Iraq war or the economy, the two issues most often mentioned as voters' biggest concerns, but moral values, which were the biggest factor in motivating people to go to the polls.” [CBS, The Early Show, 11/4/04]

In fact, the meaning of the “moral values” polling and its merit as an indicator of voter sentiment remains widely contested. Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, contended in a November 6 article in The New York Times that the exit polls were, in fact, “misleading” because “moral values ... was an ambiguous, appealing and catchall phrase.” “If you put moral values on a list,” Kohut noted on the November 3 edition of PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, “it's hard for many people to say they weren't thinking of moral values when they were making their decision.” On MSNBC's Deborah Norville Tonight, Kohut called the “moral values” option a “horribly flawed question on the exit poll”; host Deborah Norville added: “I mean, who isn't going to say they're for moral values?”

Although 80 percent of those who selected “moral values” as their primary issue of concern in exit polls voted for Bush, it doesn't necessarily follow that the issue favors Republicans. Norville debunked this assumption on the November 8 edition of Deborah Norville Tonight, noting that on three of the issues generally grouped under the “moral values” category -- abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research -- Democrats are actually more aligned with the American public than Republicans are:

I want to just throw up some statistics where you look at what the numbers say, first starting off with abortion. And 55 percent of voters, and this is from the National Election Poll, say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That's not that different from what a Washington Post survey found eight years ago, in '96. Going on now to gay marriages -- when you add it all together, 60 percent of voters say they support either gay marriage or civil unions. And then stem cell research: two-thirds, 68 percent of voters support federal funding of stem cell research. It doesn't seem like there's a great divide ... on these “life issues.”

On the November 7 edition of NBC's Sunday Today, co-host Campbell Brown asked: “What do you think they were talking about in terms of moral values? Was this driven by opposition to gay marriage?” But the notion that support for same-sex marriage bans in eleven states was the driving force behind many “moral values” voters also appears to be mistaken. As author and University of Virginia associate professor of politics Paul Freedman observed in a November 5 article for, Bush's share of the votes in states considering same-sex marriage bans actually decreased in 2004 as compared to 2000. Freedman noted that this fact raises questions about the conventional understanding of the “moral values” issue, and asked: “Did people in these states mention moral issues because gay marriage was on the ballot? Or was it on the ballot in places where people were already more likely to be concerned about morality?” Further, Freedman explained that Republican turnout did not increase disproportionately as a result of the “moral values” issue:

[T]he morality gap didn't decide the election. Voters who cited moral issues as most important did give their votes overwhelmingly to Bush (80 percent to 18 percent), and states where voters saw moral issues as important were more likely to be red ones. But these differences were no greater in 2004 than in 2000. If you're trying to explain why the president's vote share in 2004 is bigger than his vote share in 2000, values don't help.

Even conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks agreed that little can be concluded from the “moral values” responses, asking in his November 6 column: “Who doesn't vote on moral values? If you ask an inept question, you get a misleading result.”