Saturday, November 06, 2004

Devaluing the values voters

Remember when we said that we wouldn't be reading any of the post-election punditry, given its inevitable reliance on a bogus notion of morality? We lied. At least a little. Because we ventured into some of the election analysis in Saturday's New York Times. One thing is clear -- Dubya's blue state boosters have reacted pretty badly to the implication of the election they have common cause with the likes of Ella-May from Mobile, Alabama.

So there's a big pushback against the already famous moral values question on the exit polls and the related focus on gay marriage as the sleeper issue in the election. The morals question acted like flypaper to the Dubya-voting respondents. It's pretty tough being someone like David "smart conservative" Brooks, moving in the urbane circles of Ardmore Pa. and Bethesda Md. and seeing the messianic appeal of Dubya to JesusCountry voters.

So Brooks, in a piece called "the values-vote myth" and Andrew Sullivan, inter alia, push a two-part critique: (1) the percentage of voters from various religious classifications didn't change much from the 2000 election, so there's no sign of a new voting block being driven to vote by moral issues, and (2) the moral values question on the exit poll itself is flawed, because it's a catch-all term picking up "none of the above" responses in the poll.

Both elements of the critique are, of course, shite. First, unchanged voter composition: elections are decided by numbers, not percentages. Both parties did a much better job of voter mobilisation than 2000 -- there is more of every category voting, but, at the risk of sounding like an economist, there's still the question of how each party managed to appeal to those additional voters. Republicans needed additional numbers of evangelical voters to offset highly motivated new Democratic voters i.e. they needed an issue to tip previously lukewarm evangelicals into going to the polls. And what better than conjuring up for such people the spectacle of weddings involving men of the same gender in polygamous marriages with household pets?

Second, the flawed poll question. Gary Langer, the ABC director of polling, who was on the committee that selected the question (against his wishes) says:

This distortion comes from a question in the exit poll, co-sponsored by the national television networks and The Associated Press, that asked voters what was the most important issue in their decision: taxes, education, Iraq, terrorism, economy/jobs, moral values or health care. Six of these are concrete, specific issues. The seventh, moral values, is not, and its presence on the list produced a misleading result ... this hot-button catch phrase had no place alongside defined political issues on the list of most important concerns in the 2004 vote.

Notice the circular logic here: I, the pollster, believe that elections are decided by "issues." Therefore, any voter response to something that is not "an issue" is evidence that the poll question is wrong. But look at the actual campaign that Dubya ran: short of specific policy proposals, and long on references to his own leadership, resolve, and moral values (including the phrase hijacked from the Vatican, his reverence for a "culture of life").

And it's telling that analysts who, unlike Brooks and Sullivan, are unencumbered by the need to disassociate themselves from a particular narrative, are likewise skeptical:

But Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, called critiques "garbage.''
"The people who picked moral values as an issue know what that means," he said. "It's a code word in surveys for a cluster of issues like gay marriage and abortion."
Mr. McInturff said that if "moral values" was really a "catchall" with a confused meaning, then more Democrats would have picked it. Of the 22 percent who chose "moral values," 80 percent were Bush supporters, 20 percent were Kerry supporters. "It's self-selected by people for whom these issues are very important for their votes," he said, adding that the margin by which Mr. Bush carried these voters arguably made the difference in the election.

So here's our word of probably useless advice for disappointed liberals: tune out the self-serving drivel of the crypto and smart conservatives, and the self-hating liberals (like Richard Cohen). What's wrong with taking seriously the winning side's own explanation of how they won?

UPDATE: As a special service to our readers, we link here to the schedule of Bill Maher's show on HBO this week, for additional chances to catch a bizarre spectacle involving the aforementioned Andrew Sullivan, brought to national attention by James Wolcott.

FURTHER UPDATE [Nov 15]: The angry old man of the Vast Rightwing Conspiracy is pushing the Brooksian line, with his own nasty insinuations thrown in. Charles Krauthammer, who we previously posted about when he was using the Stalinist trick of equating dissent with mental illness, has that plus so much more in this section from his currrent rant (in the Washington Post and WSJ):

In the post-election analyses, the liberal elite, led by the holy trinity of The New York Times -- Krugman, Friedman, and Dowd -- just about lost its mind denouncing the return of medieval primitivism. As usual, Maureen Dowd achieved the highest level of hysteria,

Here's an experiment: suppose that a liberal columnist referred to the 'holy trinity' of the neocons, Krauthammer, Wolfowitz and (say) Andrew Sullivan, and went on to label Ann Coulter as 'hysterical' -- anyone want to guess what the lines of attack from the right would be?

EVEN FURTHER UPDATE [Nov 17]: Brad DeLong links to a post that is very apropos the question of whether voters think about "issues" the same way that pollsters do.

ONE FINAL UPDATE (Dec 23). Opinion polls are shown a clear plunge in support for the Iraq war. The plunge is pronounced since the election. Pundits scratch their heads and wonder why Dubya got elected if the war was so latently unpopular -- it's as if those voters were all worked up about other issues in election season ... like moral values!

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