Thursday, November 04, 2004

Red Herrings of the Week: Gay Marriage and Other "Moral Issues"

A new notion is coming into the fore, as the Left, assisted by a still-compliant media, attempt to explain the thorough shellacking the Democrats received on Tuesday: it's all those Evangelicals and Catholics, who came out of their lairs so they could support George W. Bush over "moral issues." This is shorthand for: Kerry had it sewn up, Bush was a war-mongering chimp, but Karl Rove dug out all the latter-day fag-hatin' Cotton Mathers in the Bible Belt, who came out in droves to make sure gays couldn't get married. The Christian Right is happy to go along with this notion, hoping to claim more influence.

There is only one problem with this: it makes no sense, and is not supported by the data.

Let's get the easy ones out of the way first. Two states were considered "swing" going into this election, and crucial to Bush: Ohio and Florida. Florida did not have a no-gay-marriage amendment on the ballot.

Ohio did. It passed easily, with 3,249,157 votes -- 62%. Yet George W. Bush only got 2,796,147 votes -- 51%. Even assuming every single Bush voter also voted to prohibit gay marriage, that leaves over 400,000 Kerry voters who did the same. Even in Oregon -- where Kerry won by 65,000 votes -- the ban on gay marriage was adopted by a margin of 236,607 votes, giving it a 57% majority, the smallest of the 11 states where it was an issue. And why wouldn't someone against gay marriage vote for Kerry? It's not as if Kerry's position on the subject was any different from Bush's.

The rest of the states -- Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, and Oklahoma -- were all either safely pro-Bush, or else lost to Kerry. Some "wedge issue"!

Besides, you have to wonder where these "moral values" people have been. One would think that if anyone got the "moral values" crowd out to the polls, it would be Bill Clinton -- a pot-smoking womanizer with a thoroughly emancipated career wife, whose first term was famous for gays-in-the-military, Gennifer Flowers, and "I did not inhale." Yet Clinton got his second term with 49% of the popular vote, and I just can't see a whole lot of hardcore Christian Right types choosing Ross Perot. For Pete's sake, Clinton got 44% of the vote in Mississippi and about the same in Alabama, and you don't get much more "moral values" than those states. Kerry only got 39% and 37% percent there (respectively), and whatever his faults, it's hard to see him being more objectionable to the Christian Right than Clinton.

The notion of the election being tipped by the Christian Right is likewise unsupported by the exit polls. Bush only gained 3 percentage points with Protestants -- a group of which "the Christian Right" is a small part -- to get 59% of their vote. With 54% of the voters identifying themselves as Protestant, that's about 1.5% of the vote -- not enough to explain Bush's victory. Gaining another 5 percentage points with the 27% who are Catholic brings in another 1.35% -- just barely enough, assuming absolutely every one of them was voting strictly on "moral values." And were they?

In a word, no. Of those believers who attended church at least weekly, Bush only picked up 1% of the vote over 2000. Not enough, even if we assume that everyone who goes to church on Sunday is a Bible thumper whose only concern is to keep gay marriage out of their state.

(A side note about exit polls: yes, it's important not to place too much faith in them. But I still think these data are valid. These are full samples from all the voters, not just those showing up in the morning, so it's unlikely that their sampling is wildly skewed. Moreover, the usual margin or error for these things is around 3-4% -- too large to pick a winner in a 49-51 election, but certainly acceptable to test whether Bush's voters are all religious nuts.)

So, if it wasn't God and gays, what was it? The same ol' boring, oft-repeated topics: Iraq, terrorism, and the economy.

The latter first, because I think it's the most interesting. For all the complaining the Kerry campaign did on the economy, it seems that the U.S. is doing pretty well. 32% of voters said that their family's financial situation is better today than four years ago, compared to only 28% who said it's worse. Of those who said their family was better off, a whopping 80% voted for Bush -- a 44 percentage point improvement over 2000. The same proportion of those worse off voted against Bush, but there were fewer of them. The remaining 39% whose financial situation didn't change, split their votes just about evenly: 49% Bush, 50% Kerry, 1% Nader.

The other big one was Iraq. 51% of voters approved of the invasion, and 45% disapproved -- just about the same as the candidates' final percentages. Interestingly enough, 52% of voters thought that the war in Iraq was going badly, vs 44% who thought it was going well, but, at least for some people, that wasn't enough to choose Kerry.

On terrorism, 54% of the electorate thought the U.S. is safer, while 41% thought us "less safe." This also roughly mirrors the vote percentage. (On a side note, I can hardly imagine how we could be "less safe" than when 19 Arabs can get into the country illegally, take flight lessons without raising alarms, walk onto four airliners despite being on a watch list, and alter the Manhattan skyline. Does 41% of the electorate really think safety comes from being popular at the UN? Or is it just that many people never thought about terrorism before?)

Overall, it seems that the voters' choices came down simply to how well Bush has been doing his job, with Approve at 53% and Disapprove at 46% -- again, matching the election returns almost exactly. It appears that the difference comes from the "somewhat approve" camp, 15% of whom apparently thought Bush was doing a decent job, but either wanted a change or thought Kerry could do better.

And there it is, folks -- the true motivators behind Bush's win were Iraq, terrorism, and the economy, not necessarily in that order. Why all this talk of "moral values," then?

Because the press is bad at math. They looked at these polls, and saw that 22% of the voters said "Moral values" was the most important issue to them, and 80% of those voted for Bush. But even assuming that they answered honestly and accurately, that would be less than 18% of all voters chose Bush for this reason. (And questions like these are guaranteed to get a lot of bad answers. Quick, name the single most important issue for you when you voted!) Nor does "moral values" signify -- as many commentators suggest -- some kind of commitment to Biblical scripture. Sure, those who consider his "religious values" important chose Bush overwhelmingly -- but they were only 8% of the electorate, bringing him 7.2%. He got an equal number, though, of people who chose him because they wanted someone "honest/trustworthy" (7.7%) and twice that number chose him for being a "strong leader" (17.8%) and taking "a clear stand on the issues" (13.4%).

In other words, Bush got re-elected because the country thinks he says what he does and does what he says, and because it approves of both. The Republicans can only hope that the Democrats, convinced of yet another Rovian plot and spurred on by their media echo chamber, start on another wild goose chase, unable to distinguish between religion and morality. Which is ironic, considering how often they accuse Republicans of the same thing.

Update: Paul Freedman of Slate has more supporting data.

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