What Kerry failed to see, and ultimately what sealed the fate of his candidacy, was a similarly momentous change in people's view of social issues brought into play earlier this year by the high court of his own home state. As we argued in these pages a month before the election ('The Rise of the Values Voter,' Oct. 11), survey research commissioned by Time and MSNBC/Knight-Ridder revealed that concern over social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage had taken a quantum leap this year and had become far more favorable to Republicans than in previous election cycles, particularly in the swing states in which the election was ultimately decided.
Evidence of this was apparent in the exit polling, which clearly showed that voters concerned over social and moral issues turned out for President Bush in large numbers. (Though Glenn Reynold's warning against overstating this should be considered, as should reliance on these same flawed exit polls that indicated a Kerry swing-state sweep.) Those on the coasts may be befuddled by how Bush won, and some have resorted to the predictable charge of it being a result of simple-minded, religiously-fanatic, right-wing conservatives supporting the President. For example, Michelle Totten commented that
...the top reason that Bush voters gave for supporting their guy was not the economy, not Iraq, not even the war on terrorism. It was "moral values." That's right, with American soldiers dying overseas, Al Qaeda still gunning for us at home, the deficit spiraling, the gap between rich and poor growing, Social Security on the brink, etc., etc., Bush's reelection was driven by a bunch of folks freaked out over the thought of gay marriage and stem-cell research.
God save the republic.
Perhaps the best answer to Michelle is provided by Bell and Cannon
How is it possible that in a time of war and global crisis, voters see "Moral Values" as comparably important--an issue that was central in delivering reelection to a consequential, controversial wartime president?First, note that Bell and Cannon point out that voters saw moral issues as comparably important to the War on Terror, not as preeminent. Contrary to elite opinion, and the press spin, voters can vote on more than a single-issue. Bush voters didn't just vote based upon social/moral issues like gay marriage, or abortion, or religion: they also voted for the President because they agreed with him about the war (even when the exit poll questions cleverly separated the War on Terror from Iraq). The voters took the combination of all of these issues, weighted differently by different people, and judged collectively that the President's position on them was better for the long-term good of the country and its people than were Senator Kerry's.
The answer is that voters can weigh more than one big worry at the same time. In 1980, Americans felt beleaguered by the fear of losing the Cold War and by stagflation at home. A more "sensible" politician than Ronald Reagan would have suggested addressing one crisis first, then turning our emphasis to the other.
Counterintuitively, Reagan sensed that he needed to address both crises at once. He cut taxes deeply, supported Paul Volcker's ratcheting up of interest rates, and instituted a massive military buildup, all in his first year as president. By 1982, Reagan's job performance rating had fallen into the 30s, and he was widely regarded as a failure. In 2004, the year of his death, what Reagan did goes by a different name.
Today, many voters' sense of security is equally threatened by military attacks by our terrorist enemies and by elitist judges' assaults on our ability to guard our moral standards by means of self-government here at home. As he thanked his supporters and the American people in the Ronald Reagan Building Wednesday afternoon, President Bush took a giant step toward a comparable achievement.
Nonetheless, while the War on Terror rightly continues to be important, cultural issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and judicial activism will be just as, if not more, important to many in the electorate. In the political debates surrounding the War on Terror and other international issues, most conservatives and many moderates and libertarians have generally tended to be pitted against liberals. However, it seems likely that, as Justin Katz has predicted, these lines are going to be re-drawn on the moral and cultural front and that conservatives face an assemblage of liberals, moderates and libertarians. This debate is between those who prioritize the rights of the individual to excercise often radical or even self-destructive (legalizing drug use, for instance) "freedoms" over the rights of those who hold more traditional values that have formed the bedrock of the ideal of a moral American society. This election has revealed that a slim majority of Americans hold these traditional values dear and that they are not ready to relinquish their right to maintain these values in their culture and institutions. They don't "hate", they disagree, and they have as much right to excercise their "rights" as anyone else.