Most assessments of the election have concluded that the "moral values" of voters determined the election. "Over the past 30 years, there's been a gigantic cultural shift to conservative values. The country is becoming more traditionally religious and that's now showing up in the elections," opined Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination. "The liberal secularist's worst fears are coming to pass: a grand alliance of white Evangelicals, black evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons." (1)
Many of the liberal secularists agree. The New York Times' Maureen Dowd wrote an anguished column after triumph of "the forces of darkness". "W.'s presidency rushes backward, stifling possibilities, stirring intolerance, confusing church with state, blowing off the world, replacing science with religion, and facts with faith." (2) The map charting an analysis based solely on religion divides the United States into two countries, the United States of Canada and "Jesusland".
But is religion really the key to the issue? As political scientist James Q. Wilson pointed out, the economy or the war in Iraq were just as important as "moral values" in any case. (3) Nearly all of the pundits' reflections on the election have been based on the exit poll results. But these are a snakes-and-ladders jumble of clues about the feelings of the electorate. Of the 22% of voters who thought that moral values were most important, Bush beat Kerry by four to one. However, of the 20% who thought that the economy and jobs were the most important issues, Kerry beat Bush by four to one. From such ambiguous figures it's hard to draw hard-and-fast conclusions. In any case, which "moral values" did these voters have in mind? The sanctity of traditional marriage? The dignity of human embryos? The personhood of the fetus? Prayers in public schools? Or was it corporate fraud? Or equal rights for minority groups and immigrants? Or telling the truth to voters?
As well as the fuzzy, flickering signal of "moral values", what political scientists and journalists ought to examine more closely is where voters live. Kerry won the big city vote by 60% to 39%, but that was the only geographical area in which he had a clear advantage. Only 13% of the voters live there. But people in rural areas, who constituted 16% of the voters, backed Bush by the same margin. In the suburbs, where 45% of the voters were up for grabs, Bush won handily, by 52% to 47%. What was the attraction of George W. to them?
One feature may have been a perception amongst suburban voters that Bush was more family friendly. This needs to be studied more closely, of course, as sociologists say that single people now make up a larger share of suburban households than married couples with children and that "married with children" families are increasing in many cities in the South and West. (4)
But what is clear is that Bush won the family vote hands down. First of all, he won the traditional family vote — the 28% of voters who were married with children supported him by a margin of 59% to 40%. The simple fact of being married was an indicator that a voter would have voted for Bush. The 63% of married voters backed him by a hefty margin of 57% to 42%. But he also seems to have swung voters in non-traditional families. The 37% who had children under 18 weren't necessarily married but they still split their vote 53% for Bush and 47% for Kerry.
When you combine these figures with the landslide rejection of gay marriage in all of the 11 states which held referendums on the issue, you have to conclude that support for families and marriage will be a key factor in the 2008 election.
Of course, even if American families did re-elect President Bush, the Republicans can hardly take their support for granted. Financial hardship will immediately swing voters to the party of change. Families who felt that they were better off voted four to one for Bush; families who were worse off voted four to one for Kerry. Families whose situation had stayed the same split their vote evenly.
It's hard to read the tea leaves of the exit polls. But it seems crystal clear that whoever runs for president in 2008 will have to make a big pitch to American families.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.
(1) "A 'moral voter' majority? The culture wars are back", Christian Science Monitor, 8 November 2004.
(2) Maureen Dowd, "Rove's Revenge", New York Times, 7 November 2004.
(3) James Q. Wilson, "Why Did Kerry Lose? (Answer: It Wasn't 'Values'", Wall Street Journal, 8 November 2004.
(4) "City Families and Suburban Singles: An Emerging Household Story from Census 2000", Brookings Institution.