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Why All the Hype about Morality Issues in the 2004 Elections?

J. David Fairbanks
University of Houston-Downtown


One of the questions asked on an exit poll sponsored by the Associated Press to those voting in   the 2004 presidential election was “Which one issue mattered most in deciding how you voted for president?”  Respondents were given seven possible choices to choose from. Twenty-two percent of those surveyed picked moral values. The economy/jobs was cited by 20%, terrorism by 19%, Iraq by 15%, health care by 8%, taxes by 5% and education by 4% (Brumley: A-1). Network commentators kept referring to these exit poll findings throughout the evening as constituting the real story of the election. Because the same poll showed that 80% of those listing moral values as the issue most important issue to them were Bush supporters, the conclusion was quickly drawn that the main reason for Bush’s victory was voter concern over moral values.

     News stories in the days immediately following the election continued to point to concern over moral issues as the factor most responsible for the Republican victory. After Fox News declared Bush the winner late on Election Day, a commentator correctly predicted that the lead in the next morning’s papers would read something like the following: “In a time of economic uncertainty and international instability, "moral values" was the most important issue in the minds of American voters” (Meyer: 1).

     For several days following the election, both the print and electronic media focused on how concern over moral values had brought out record numbers of evangelical voters to the polls and given Bush his victory. By the end of the week, however, the focus had changed. A second wave of news stories began to appear challenging the claim that issues such as gay marriage and abortion and other “wedge issues” being pushed by the Religious Right issues had been the deciding factors in the election. As more scholarly research on the election began to appear, it too tended to discount the role that these issues had on voter turnout in 2004 and on Bush’s re-election.

     This paper will offer some examples of the initial media response to the Bush victory, and then review the quite different interpretations of the election given in a second wave of news stories. The findings of the early political science research done on the 2004 election will also be reviewed. The paper’s conclusion will suggest several reasons for the media’s initial obsession with “moral issues” and the reasons and the factors that forced a reconsideration of these early interpretations of the 2004 vote.

The Big Story: Moral Issues and “Values” Voters

     On November 3, 2004, the consensus among reporters and news broadcasters was that the big story of the election was the role played by moral issues. The “near universal agreement the morning after,” according to Frank Rich in the New York Times, was that these “two words tell the entire story of the election: it's the culture, stupid” (November 14, 2004).

     Those who woke up to the CBS Early Show on November 4 heard White House correspondent Bill Plante report that: "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." 

     "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" was how Dan Rather began the CBS Evening News (November 4, 2004) later that day. On CNN, Anchor Anderson Cooper (November 3, 2004) was telling his viewers that “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."

     An election story in The Detroit Free Press was headlined “Strategy for winning: Voters go for Bush's stand on moral values.” The story reported that for “some voters, those values reflect a deep concern about legal abortion, same-sex marriage or a popular culture drenched in sex [while for] others, it is a general sense that a candidate shares the voter's views about right and wrong or religion in public life ( November 4, 2004). Salt Lake City’s Desert News told its readers to “Forget Iraq. Forget terrorism. Forget the economy. The biggest factor shaping people's votes Tuesday was the mother of all sleeper issues — ‘moral values’” (November 4, 2004).

     The headline from the San Jose Mercury News was that a “Focus on moral values drove Bush's victory.” Its lead stated that “Their seeds planted 20-plus years ago by the Moral Majority, America's values voters blossomed this year into a political force that could portend a lasting Republican majority” (November 3, 2004).

     The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s headline was that “Focus on values drove many Bush voters, polls find moral issues were No. 1 consideration in U.S., state.” Its lead paragraph profiled a typical Bush voter for whom the election came down to “a few matters such as abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research” (November 3, 2004).

     The Chicago Tribune’slead story on the election referred to the end of “a long, spiteful campaign that exposed the nation’s cultural divide and delivered a strong advantage to the Republicans.” It went on to describe how” the president held off an acrid opposition to the Iraq War and rode a concern over moral issues as 59 million people chose him over Sen. John Kerry.” The paper credited Karl Rove’s campaign plan that relied on “an intricate database of evangelical Christians and others inspired by conservative issues like abortion, gun control, or protecting marriage as a bond between a man and woman” (November 4, 2004).

     The same issue featured another story carrying the headline “Faith takes key role in political landscape.”  This story began “Witness to a thundering 11-state endorsement of bans on gay marriage, a huge mobilization of people of faith and the emergence of moral issues as the top issue in the ballot booth, pundits Wednesday labeled the 2004 presidential election as the fruit of the ‘Bible ballot’ and the victory of the ‘values voter.’” There is little doubt, the story went on to report, “that faith fueled the re-election of President Bush” (Chicago Tribune, November 4, 2004).

     The foreign media followed the lead of American journalists. The lead story on the BBC web site Wednesday morning was “Election reveals divided nation - moral values propelled Bush to reelection - ‘values voters' made the difference.” BBC reporter Steve Schiffers reported that the ‘2004 election has revealed a deeply divided electorate, which is polarized more than ever over cultural issues as well as the war in Iraq. Religion - rather than class, ethnic origin or education - has become the key determinant of voting in the 2004 presidential race, according to an exit poll conducted by the Associated Press news agency. And moral issues were more important for voters than Iraq , the war on terrorism, or the economy. (Retrieved September 14, 2005, from

Opinion Leaders from Both Ends of the Political Spectrum Agree

     The first pronouncements of columnists and other “opinion leaders” generally reflected the same view as the news stories did that “moral issues” and “values voters” constituted the big story of the election. The response to exit poll findings by those who supported President Bush and who were in sympathy with the goals of the Religious Right was predictably positive. The morning after the election William Bennett declared in a column written for the online edition of National Review (November 4, 2004) that “Ethics and moral values were ascendant last night – on voters’ minds [and] in American hearts.”

     MSNBC analyst and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan was clearly pleased by the finding of the exit polls that "It wasn't the economy or the war in Iraq or even the war on terror” but moral values that mattered most to voters in their choosing of a president" (MSNBC, Scarborough Country, November 3, 2004). Tucker Carlson, co-host of CNN’s ‘Crossfire’ was similarly pleased in announcing “Three days after the presidential election, it is clear that it was not the war on terror, but the issue of what we’re calling moral values that drove President Bush and other Republicans to victory this week” (CNN, Crossfire, November 5, 2004)

     Bush critics, while accepting the premise that moral issues had decided the election, were much less sanguine about the implications of this finding. Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach suggested that moral values were basically a code word for prejudice against gays. He wrote that “the reelection of George W. Bush as the 43rd president of the United States appears to be at least in part because of a fear that liberals favor marital unions among sodomites.”

     “The Day the Enlightenment went out” was the way Gary Wills described the election outcome. The Republican triumph, Wills wrote, confirms the brilliance of Karl Rove as a political strategist in understanding better than others the political significance of polls showing that more Americans believe in the virgin birth than in evolution. Fundamentalists had suffered a near fatal blow in the 1925 Scopes trial, but in 2004 they had their revenge, according to Wills, as they came roaring back out of anger over court decisions on such issues as abortion and gay marriage. He argues that the only other place where there is such fundamentalist zeal and rage at secularity and modernity exists is in the Muslim world. (New York Times, November 4, 2004).

     A similar theme was voiced by the editor of American Prospect (November 4, 2004) who wrote that the reelection of President Bush “for the reasons the polls tell us he evidently won is a culminating event in the nation’s political retreat from modernity.”

     Like Wills, Maureen Dowd accused the Republicans of mobilizing a kind of jihad of fundamentalist voters by “opposing abortion, suffocating stem cell research and supporting a constitutional amendment against gay marriage.” She charged that the president got re-elected by “dividing the country along fault lines of fear, intolerance, ignorance and religious rule” and dismissed Bush’s promise after the election was over to reach out to the country as “humbug.”  According to Dowd, the president “doesn’t want to heal rifts; he wants to bring any riffraff who disagree to heel.” (New York Times, November 4, 2004).

     Religious Right Leaders were happy to take all the credit they were being given in the press for Bush’s victory. The faith factor was the difference in this election," Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told a reporter. “Even The New York Times acknowledged that the faith factor was determinative." Former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer called it the "year of the values voter." The upsets in the Senate and House races and the 11 marriage amendments showed that “no matter where you lived, people came out to support the kind of values that founded and built this great nation," Bauer, president of American Values, said in a written statement.

     The Christian Defense Coalition yesterday echoed the theme of the mainstream press that it was a strong evangelical and pro-life voter turnout that was the key to the president's victory. Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the coalition, cited clear evidence that “one of the major factors in this presidential race was the strong turnout of the faith and pro-life communities" (Washington Times, Nov. 4, 2004).

     Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a written release that it was clear "values voters have ushered President George W. Bush down the aisle for a second term. What does this mean? It means that if the president stays true to his word, the next four years will be defining ones for family issues, including marriage, life, and taxes" (The Times-Picayune, January 24, 2005).

     In a Newsday interview, Jerry Falwell reported that Rove had personally thanked him for the more than “30 million evangelicals who visited the polls last Tuesday.” Falwell also stated that as he watched the election returns into the early hours, “I could not hold back the tears of joy . . . [as] I actually realized the fruit of my labors nationwide.” He also announced that the election results had inspired him to reactivate the old Moral majority organization, the group he had established in the 1970 to battle the forces of secular humanism (November 4, 2004).

     Religious Right leader like James Dobson made clear they expected more than thank yous from the Bush administration for the part they had played in the election. According to Slate magazine, when a thank-you call came from the White House, Dobson issued the staffer a blunt warning that Bush "needs to be more aggressive" about pressing the religious right's pro-life, anti-gay rights agenda, or it would "pay a price in four years." (Slate, November 12, 2004). "If the Republicans do what they've done in the past, which is to say, 'Thanks so much for putting us in power, now we don't want to talk to you anymore,' they will pay a severe price in four years and maybe two." (Denver Post, November 14, 2004).

     Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, wasn't exactly conciliatory either in his post-election letter to Bush, deeming the president's re-election "a reprieve from the agenda of paganism." Jones wrote: "You owe liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ."

Oops, Maybe Moral Issues Weren’t All that Important After All

     A few cautioned against placing too much significance on the exit polls findings almost from the moment they were released, and by a week after the election, many stories were appearing suggesting that “moral issues” and “values factors” may not have been the determining factors in the presidential election that many of the earlier stories had proclaimed them to be. Early skeptics issued reminders that the Associated Press’ much-cited exit poll was also predicting a Kerry victory and that the difference between the percent of the respondents citing moral issues and the next most frequently cited issue was not statistically significant.

     The Washington Post’s polling director Richard Morin charged that the networks had done something incredibly stupid in including moral issues in a list of specific issues like terrorism, Iraq , the economy and health care. Moral issues are not really an issue in the sense that the other items in the list are, he argues, because all issues have a moral dimension to them (Pressthink, November 23, 2004). David Brook, in his New York Times column, wrote that when people said they were influenced by moral values when they cast their vote, there was no telling what they meant. Who doesn't vote on moral values, he asked. If you ask an inept question, you get a misleading result.

     Brian Healy, a CBS News Producer, acknowledged no one at CBS had bothered to ask “What exactly are moral values?” until its news reports had declared them to be the major factor in the election. He acknowledged that the theory that moral issues won the election for Bush was appealing in its simplicity but that it was just wrong. He pointed out that had terrorism and the war in Iraq had been listed as a single item, the number of people citing it as the most important issue would have far exceeded those citing moral issues, and the post-election headlines would have been quite different. (San Francisco Chronicle, December 6, 2004)

     Other polls taken after the election attempted to find out what people meant when they said they had been influenced by moral values. A Harris poll found that when some people said they had been influenced most by moral values they were referring to things such as honesty (22%) or family values (15%) or integrity (12%). The Harris poll did find that others were referring to those issues championed by the religious right like gay marriage (17%) and abortion (15%) (PRNewswire, December 22, 2004). When a Pew poll used an open-ended question to ask people why they voted as they did, only 8% volunteered that it had been moral issues.

     Comparisons of 2004 with earlier elections revealed that “moral issues” and “value voters” were hardly new factors in presidential elections. About as many voters listed moral issues as the biggest factor influencing their vote in 2000 as there had been in 2004, and evangelical voters made up about the same percentage of the electorate in 2004 as they had in 2000. In the 1996 race between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, a much higher percentage of voters had said that they had made their decision on the basis of value issues than in 2004. A Los Angeles Times poll showed that Bush actually received a slightly lower percentage of the “moral values” vote than he had in 2000.

     These historical comparisons caused most commentators to back away from their earlier claims that moral issues had been the “big story” of the 2004 campaign. Different interpretations emerged as more survey data became available. In an article published six months after the elections, political scientists Hillyus and Shields (2005) reported that:

Using a new national post-election survey, we found that opinions about gay marriage and abortion were far from the most important predictors of vote choice, and had no effect on voter decision making among Independents, respondents in states with an anti-gay marriage initiative on the ballot. Rather, only in the South, did either issue have an independent effect on vote choice, and even here the effect was minimal in comparison to that of attitudes toward the economy, the Iraq war and terrorism. (201)

     Abramowitz (2005) used multiple regression analysis to determine what factors had the greatest impact on turnout and found that the presence of gay marriage referenda on the ballot had no impact at all. His findings were that the strongest predictor of what turnout was in 2004 was what turnout it had been in 2000. Other significant factors affecting turnout included whether a state had been targeted by the presidential campaigns as a swing state and whether or not the state had a hotly contested Senate race taking place. Abramowitz’s analysis found that a state’s 2000 vote was also the best predictor of how the state would vote in 2004. The regression analysis found no evidence that gay marriage referenda on a state’s ballot had increased Bush’s share of the state’s vote. In fact, while Bush gained 2.5 percentage points in states with such referenda on the ballot, his average increase in states not holding votes on gay marriage was 2.7 percent. Smith (2005) did a county by county analysis of the vote in Ohio and came to similar conclusion that the presence of the ballot measure on gay marriage had little independent impact on the Bush vote.

     Scholars like Abramowitz and Smith are not, of course, disputing that there is a cultural divide in the country and that evangelical Protestants take conservative positions on a whole range of issues. The culture wars thesis goes back to the 1970s (See Hunter). Political scientists such as Weisberg have been exploring for many years the relationship between cultural and life-style values and political behavior. That white evangelicals take conservative positions on issues like abortion and gay rights and support conservative Republicans is an indisputable fact. There preponderance of evidence, however, is that their impact in the 2004 presidential election was not significantly different than it has been in past recent elections. Larry Bartels of Princeton, for example, analyzed 2004 results and concluded that there was no major shift in the behavior of culturally conservative white voters in 2004 from the pattern that has existed since the 1980s (Washington Post December 17, 2004, p. A-1).

     As a wider range of survey results were reviewed and voting data systematically analyzed, the conventional wisdom regarding why Bush won has tended to give greater weight to factors such as terrorism and to the personal qualities of the two candidates. There is a large body of political science literature going back to The American Voter that suggests that many voters give greater weight to the personal qualities of the candidates than they do to their stand on issues. Polls throughout the 2004 campaign found that people found Bush more “likeable” than Kerry and saw him as someone more like themselves. Bush was also seen as more trustworthy and as a stronger leader. While the leaders of the Religious Right still contend that it was their “values voters” who elected the president, the preponderance of evidence is that other factors were more important.

So Why the Rush to Judgment – Why Was the Media so Quick to Explain an Election on the Basis of One Question
Asked on an Exit Survey

     The day after the election, many in the media were asking how they could have missed what the conventional wisdom then saw as the big story of the election – the impact of moral issues. In retrospect, the question that should be asked is how the media became so enamored with the notion that moral issues were the big story of the election. There are several possible answers to this question of why were those in the media so quick to pounce on “moral issues” as the deciding factor in the 2004 election?

     Election coverage had become increasingly poll driven in recent years and polls frequently provide the material used in a story’s lead. Like most people, reporters prefer simple explanations to complicated ones and it was a fact that more people participating in the exit polls had indicated that moral issues had influenced their vote more frequently than any other factor. News reports seldom critique the surveys that furnish them the data they report. The “pack journalism” phenomena undoubtedly played a role in the consensus that quickly formed among reporters and editors from around the country that moral issues was the big story of the election. Newspapers coming out the morning after the election had little time to challenge the claims made by the major TV network commentators that Bush’s victory was due to a surprisingly large turnout of “values voters.”

     Another reason that so many were willing to buy into the theory that moral issues were the single most important factor in the election was because it was common knowledge Republicans were targeting evangelicals and other “values voters.”  Karl Rove has made no secret of the fact that Republican campaign strategy rests heavily on using religious wedge issues to win the election. From flag burning to the Pledge of Allegiance and the definition of marriage, Republican leaders have been scheduling votes to make Democrats take a public stand on these controversial issues. They had also encouraged eleven states to include initiatives banning gay marriage on their ballots. Even his political opponents recognize Rove as a political genius and the early exit poll findings seemed to be proof that the Rove strategy had worked. He had been predicting throughout the campaign that these moral issues would mobilize an additional four million evangelicals who had not voted in 2000 to come to the polls in 2004 and ensure Bush’s reelection.

     That leaders of the Religious Right would want to claim credit for the Bush victory is no surprise. People like Dobson, Jerry Falwell and Tony Perkins wanted to be seen as kingmakers, as the leaders who had won the election for Bush, since this would strengthen their position for arguing that the president “owed them.” Statements made by Dobson and Perkins after the election made clear that the believed they had delivered the votes that had elected Bush and that they expected Bush to give them their reward.

     That so many Bush opponents bought into the moral values theory is more difficult to explain. As the columns by Wills and Dowd suggest, there was a certain mindset among many liberals that intelligent, rational voters would never re-elect Bush. That Bush was re-elected then required an explanation and the idea that there had been a mass upsurge in religious fundamentalism provided that explanation. For Wills, the election was the Scopes trial all over again – a battle between enlightened modernism and fundamentalism. “Voting without facts,” was how Bob Herbert, another Times columnist, explained the election outcome. (New York Times, November 8, 2004).

     Democratic partisans were happy to accept, at least initially, the type of explanations being offered by Wills and Hebert that Bush had won by pandering to the prejudices of religious fundamentalists. Some Democrats acknowledged that they had failed to connect with religious voters but these acknowledgements were often expressed in a somewhat condescending fashion. That intelligent, rational voters would choose Bush over Kerry was simply incomprehensible to many of those on the left. They believed that their candidate had lost because the Republicans had successfully diverted attention from the “real” issues facing the country by manipulating a naive and ill-informed electorate with emotionally-charged “moral issues” like gay marriage.

Most Democratic leaders have now stopped making this argument, at least publicly. Blaming your election defeat on the ignorance and irrationality of the voters is probably not the best way to go about building party support for the future. Nor is it probably good politics for those who oppose the Religious Right’s agenda to exaggerate the size and power of Dobson’s “values voters.”

There can be no question that religion and concerns over moral issues played a role in the 2004 election as they have in all elections. The purpose of this paper was not to analyze the ways that moral values influence political behavior, but to examine how they became the “big story” in the media’s coverage of the election – a “big story” that simply did not hold up under closer scrutiny.


Abramowitz, Alan (2004) Terrorism, Gay Marriage, and Incumbency: Explaining the Republican Victory in the 2004 Presidential Election. The Forum. Retrieved September 20, 2005, from

Brumley, Jeff (2004) ‘Moral Values’ Swayed Voters to Choose Bush; Exit Polls Show Issue was as important as terrorism in Bush’s re-election, Florida Times-Union (November 4, 2004).

Hillygus, D. Sunshine and Shields, Todd G. (2005) Moral Issues and Voter Decision Making in the 2004 Presidential Election. PS, April, 201-209.

Hunter, James D. (1991) The Culture Wars. New York: Basic Books.

Meyer, Dick (2004) How Story of 2004 Election Hinged on One Exit Poll, San Francisco Chronicle, December 6, p. 1.

Smith, Daniel A. (2005) Was Rove Right? The Partisan Wedge and Turnout Effects of Issue 1, Ohio’s 2004 Ballot Initiative to Ban Gay Marriage. A paper presented at the University of California Center for the Study of Democracy/USA-Caltech Center for the Study of Law and Politics/Initiative and Referendum Institute Conference, Newport, California, January 14-15.

Teixeira, Tex (2004) The Values Voters Debate Continues, Public Opinion Watch (December 16, 2004) Retrieved September 20, 2005, from

Weisberg, Herbert F. (2005) The Structure and Effects of Moral Predispositions in Contemporary American Politics. The Journal of Politics, 67, 646-668.

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