Blogs > Liberty and Power > Hmm...Maybe It Was Terrorism, After All

Nov 6, 2004 1:51 pm

Hmm...Maybe It Was Terrorism, After All

Damn, but this gets confusing. After all the talk about how it was"moral values" and the evangelical Christians which provided Bush's crucial margin of victory (which talk I have indulged in myself), here comes Paul Freedman to say it ain't so:

Gay marriage and values didn't decide this election. Terrorism did.

The morality theory rests on three claims. The first is that gay-marriage bans led to higher turnout, chiefly among Christian conservatives. The second is that Bush performed especially well where gay marriage was on the ballot. The third is that in general, moral issues decided the election.

The evidence that having a gay-marriage ban on the ballot increased voter turnout is spotty. Marriage-ban states did see higher turnout than states without such measures. They also saw higher increases in turnout compared with four years ago. But these differences are relatively small. ...

Much has been made of the fact that"moral values" topped the list of voters' concerns, mentioned by more than a fifth (22 percent) of all exit-poll respondents as the"most important issue" of the election. It's true that by four percentage points, people in states where gay marriage was on the ballot were more likely than people elsewhere to mention moral issues as a top priority (25.0 vs. 20.9 percent). But again, the causality is unclear. 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?

More to the point, the 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.

If the morality gap doesn't explain Bush's re-election, what does? A good part of the answer lies in the terrorism gap. Nationally, 49 percent of voters said they trusted Bush but not Kerry to handle terrorism; only 31 percent trusted Kerry but not Bush. This 18-point gap is particularly significant in that terrorism is strongly tied to vote choice: 99 percent of those who trusted only Kerry on the issue voted for him, and 97 percent of those who trusted only Bush voted for him. Terrorism was cited by 19 percent of voters as the most important issue, and these citizens gave their votes to the president by an even larger margin than morality voters: 86 percent for Bush, 14 percent for Kerry.

These differences hold up at the state level even when each state's past Bush vote is taken into account. When you control for that variable, a 10-point increase in the percentage of voters citing terrorism as the most important problem translates into a 3-point Bush gain. A 10-point increase in morality voters, on the other hand, has no effect. Nor does putting an anti-gay-marriage measure on the ballot. So, if you want to understand why Bush was re-elected, stop obsessing about the morality gap and start looking at the terrorism gap.

Andrew Sullivan has more on this (and more statistics, too), urging the same conclusion.

Not having reviewed the relevant raw data myself (which is something I also have no immediate plans to do, he added honestly), I have to admit that this makes sense to me. I say that simply because terrorism has been the major story of the past three years, the major theme of the Bush presidency, and the major theme of the campaign.

But I have two important qualifications to my agreement. First, the Religious Right itself has a huge interest in convincing everyone that the"moral values" voters were the critical factor in getting Bush reelected. Most importantly, they want Bush and the Republican powers-that-be to believe it, because then the fundies will be in a position to extract their pound of flesh, in terms of the policies, judicial appointments, etc. that Bush chooses to push. Related to that is the fact that I think the media generally think the"moral values" story is"sexier" than the terrorism story. It opens the door for all the pieces about the"two Americas," Red vs. Blue States, the" cultural divide," etc., etc. The media love that storyline: it is a primal conflict between Pure Good and Pure Evil, everyone can take sides, and it has all those apocalyptic overtones. The"war on terror" has some of those key elements, too, of course -- but the domestic" culture war" is right here at home, all within our own borders, and between Americans ourselves.

Second, even if it is the case that terrorism proved to be the determining factor, that does not negate the significance of the cultural battle between True Believers -- which group includes the President and many of his supporters -- and the"reality-based community," which espouses the Enlightenment values of reason, facts and evidence. Even if the struggle between these opposing viewpoints was not the most important factor in this election, it is still crucial in terms of the more general intellectual-cultural struggle now going on, and which will continue for the foreseeable future.

So my provisional conclusion is that it's not one or the other; it's both. Hopefully, as more data and analysis become available, we'll get a more accurate and complete picture of precisely what happened in this election, and why. In the meantime, I thought I'd pass along this additional information.

(Cross posted at The Light of Reason.)

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