After the initial "values voter" mania, analysts of the 2004 presidential election have settled down a bit. Some very useful work was done by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, showing that the "values vote" perhaps wasn’t as significant as the initial exit polls suggested and that it wasn’t monomaniacally focused on abortion and gay marriage as pundits and commentators on both sides either celebrated or deplored. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life organized a panel discussion of the election, featuring such luminaries as Andrew Kohut, E.J. Dionne, and, above all, Michael Barone.
Here are a few nuggets from that discussion. First, Andrew Kohut:
I think moral values and moral issues are important elements in politics, were important elements in the votes cast by American voters on Election Day, but the leadership gap was the one that was decisive in my mind. It was what convinced many independents to vote for President Bush and enthused many Republicans who were not enthusiastic about President Bush in the spring, to go out and cast their ballot for him. We saw, for example, in the early spring - or late spring rather - a significant number of moderate and liberal Republicans saying they were less satisfied with their choice of candidates than they were four years ago. Well, by the general election campaign, that had changed. The GOP, I think successfully, turned the election into a referendum - from a referendum on Bush to a referendum on Kerry, starting with the Swift Boat controversy and culminating in the convention, and it remained that throughout the election. I think the debates almost turned it around for Kerry but in the end, people could not get comfortable with him on the leadership dimension.
With Michael Barone, there are so many good points from which to choose, I’ll just snip one and urge you to go read the whole thing:
So when we’re saying - as Andrew did correctly - that religious conservatives, and for that matter seculars, were not a much larger share of the electorate than they were in the year 2000, we must also recognize that that means there was a whole, big increase in number of them that turned out; it’s just that they didn’t turn out by a larger increase than people of other religious beliefs or moral beliefs. So in that sense, the Bush efforts to get increased turnout among these people did succeed in a vast way and you found a real surge in turnout going up there. And as we saw, it seems that - it’s interesting that the volunteer model, this sort of civic connectedness, Alexis de Tocqueville model, did better than the union-paid workers model in turning people out - marginally in the battleground states, and to the extent it was used, much more so in the other states.
Folks on the Democratic left have also made further efforts to debunk the significance of the values vote. Here, for example, is a recent piece in the Washington Post. Reporter Christopher Muste concludes as follows:
So what’s the picture that emerges from all these numbers? A large and fairly stable group of moral values voters, whose numbers have been largely consistent over the past three elections, who vote Republican in roughly the same or smaller proportions year after year, who provided no clear winning boost to Bush, and whose idea of what constitutes moral values is hardly uniform. This is a poor fit for the reigning image of a crucial swing vote -- animated single-mindedly by cultural wedge issues -- that turned out in unprecedented numbers to push Bush over the top in 2004. It’s time to reel the moral values myth back down to earth.
There’s good bit of silliness in the article, as when he attempts to deconstruct the values vote in a way that is supposed to reassure Democrats and discomfit Republicans, but it’s still worth reading. He’s right, for example, when he argues that the values vote isn’t monolithically concerned with abortion and gay marriage, but that doesn’t mean that Republicans don’t do well on any number of other "values" dimensions. Democrats, preeminently the party of individual choice, have to strain to call themselves proponents of family values, an affirmation that comes much more naturally to religious conservatives.
My final nugget comes from the Pew Research Center again, this time from a December 6th commentary on religion and the presidential vote. Here’s the opening paragraph:
President Bush’s successful reelection effort owed much to the support he received from highly religious voters, especially white evangelical Protestants. But what has been largely overlooked is Bush’s success with less religious voters. In fact, compared with four years ago, Bush made relatively bigger gains among infrequent churchgoers than he did among religiously observant voters.
Yes, Bush was very, very successful with his core constituencies, but his gains were broad-based, encompassing virtually every element of the electorate. He gained with evangelical and mainline Protestants, Catholics, Hispanics, Jews, African-Americans, and seculars, with frequent church attenders and with those who never ever enter a sanctuary. He lost support only among "other" religious groups, which I guess means among Muslims. The same commentary points out that the size of various elements in the electorate has remained relatively stable over the past four years. Mainline Protestants have lost 1% and seculars have gained 1%; no surprise there. Those who attend church one or more times a week have lost 1% and "never" has gained 1%. My take: mainline Protestantism is continuing its gradual decline, with some folks heading to the evangelical churches on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings and others running to the store to pick up the Sunday New York Times. My advice to the Republicans: keep on keeping on. The Bush message of resolve and firmness appeals to religious and secular folk alike. My advice to the Democrats: the religious constituency to which you tried to hitch your wagon in the last election is in decline. Liberal Protestantism won’t go away tomorrow, but those pews get emptier and emptier, the heads in them get grayer and grayer, and nurseries in the C.E. wing get quieter and quieter. Time for a new plan.