Overvalued?

Much has been made at Watchblog, in Washington, and even in the Mainstream Media about the influence of social conservatives - “values voters” - in the recent presidential election. Certainly the values voters were a newly identifiable group, which is what made them news, but were they in fact new, and can they really be credited with Bush’s second victory?

History

A bit of history is in order (or you can just skip to the Conclusion). "Values" as an issue first became a campaign issue for George W. Bush in the 2000 contest, when he tried to use it to sway voters who felt that the general unsavoriness of the Clinton White House was reason enough to vote against Al Gore. That strategy gained very little traction among swing voters, but it had the (perhaps intentional) effect of getting a strong turnout from the conservative Southern base of the Republican party. The Democrats lost both Tennessee and Arkansas, home states of Gore and Clinton, essentially dropping a curtain on their last hopes of denting the new Solid South. Even with strong turnout from the GOP base, Bush only "tied" the election, though the political coin toss went Bush's way and Gore was cast into outer darkness by Democrats who were horrified that Gore lost the election to a man who did not demonstrate a collegiate mastery of English.

In the October 2000 debates, Bush won voters over by convincing us that he was (a) a uniter, not a divider, (b) less ambitious, and (c) not as made-over as Al Gore.

Four years later, Bush is a different man. He is the most divisive president since Lincoln, the most ambitious president since Wilson, and the most made-over president since, um, Clinton. While I dislike many of these changes, I personally give him credit for sincerity. Before 9/11, Bush was as-promised. He treated the Arab-Israeli dispute with benign neglect. His major policy initiative was No Child Left Behind, which featured a high-profile compromise with Ted Kennedy. And before 9/11 his image was so laughable it can't possibly have been made-over.

On 9/11, of course, his charisma and leadership skills gave him a sense the backing of almost every American and (in his mind) gave him a mandate the election hadn't. It also woke him up from the Zaphod Beeblebrox-esque snooze he'd been enjoying ever since his election. I think 9/11 really changed Bush as a man, and he resolved to change the world according to the theories of his neo-conservative advisors.

And the rest is history: the popular war in Afghanistan, the less popular war in Iraq, the polarization of the country around the latter.

Does this seem to you a fair assessment of the Bush presidency? Did I leave anything out that deserves to be in a blurb of that length? Personally, I think these are the main facts of the Bush presidency as seen by most Americans. And 'values' haven't had anything to do with it.

In that context, Bush faced a challenge from a poorly prepared Democratic candidate. Where 2000 was Gore's election to lose, 2004 was Bush's. He almost did. Both parties correctly deemed that the "swing" category so familiar from previous elections had all but evaporated. When the polls closed, Bush had won a clear-cut victory, and a horde of reporters moved in to hold an inquest on the death of John Kerry.

The first fact to jump out at the reporters was that "moral values" polled very strongly among Republican voters in exit polls. This was new. Never before had they seen numbers like the 27% who picked it off a fixed list in Pew's post-election survey. Of course, in the same survey, only 14% of voters polled picked moral values when they were asked the same question in an open-ended manner. Why had this group never surfaced before? Probably because they were never asked.

In 2000, Pew's post-election survey didn't include any picklist. But a hefty 28% of Bush voters who said the issues mattered most to them picked abortion as their main issue. That can safely be considered a stand-in for the "values" umbrella, especially when we recall that gay marriage and Janet Jackson's breast were not yet national issues. Pew's similar publications for '92 and '96 are silent on the issues.

Typologies

Another way Pew provides for examining the evolution of the 'values voters' is its periodical publications of the political typologies. The most recent set was highlighted over in the blue column. Two of Pew's current groups are relevant: "Social Conservatives" (13% of registered voters) and "Pro-Government Conservatives" (10%), though only a portion of the latter group could fit under the 'value voter' umbrella. In 1999's typology, "Populist Republicans" (10%) are most identifiably values-driven, but values voters can be found in both the other GOP categories.

In 1994's report the "Moralists" were a hefty 20%. This large group was divided in the next typology between "Moderate" and "Populist" Republicans. The 1987 typologies are not available on their website, but the 1994 study says that the "Moralist" group almost doubled since '87.

If we are to say that the values voters had a 'coming out', it can be best identified as the presidency of George H. W. Bush, not that of his son. As the 1994 Pew study tells us, many of the millions of new "Moralists" came from the Democratic camp. It's easy to see how: they had grown up supporting Truman and Johnson on poverty and civil rights, and had voted for Carter, who described himself as "born-again". After a couple terms of voting for Reagan, they came back to the Democratic Party to find it had changed in their absence. The Moral Majority movement which threatened to split the GOP in the 1980's was kept in the fold and ultimately strengthened the Party by giving it double-barreled action by allying social and fiscal conservatives.

Conclusion

The Pew data and my own observations force me to conclude that value voters had very little to do with Bush's 2004 victory. Of course, if they all stayed home, that would have swung the election, but this could be said of any large group of voters. Absurdity aside, I think it is safe to say that values voters have been well-corralled by the Republicans for a decade and a half. This was not a new grouping of voters, the way "Soccer Moms" were in the 1990's, but a well-established one, albeit one with fuzzy edges.

Without entering into a full discussion of the matter, I submit that a different group of voters was principally responsible for Bush's reelection: the "Disaffected" typology. We don't know these folks: they're politically inactive, and they don't think much of either party. They don't read WatchBlog. But a decent number of them vote, and based on the numbers I'm looking at, this appears to be the principal constituency that swung to Bush.

A quick look at the various Pew polls show that "Disaffecteds" accounted for 7% of registered voters in 1994 and 10% in 1999 and 2005. That's quite a significant number. More impressively, they have moved from voting for Clinton by a 2-1 margin in both elections to voting for Bush 2-1 in 2004. Unfortunately, I did not see data for 2000. These voters (called "Embittereds" in the 1994 study) have "family ties to the Democratic Party" but doubt "the competence of Bill Clinton and the Democrats". Of this group, 36% self-identified as Democrats in 1994, 16% as Republicans. In 2005, 30% are Republicans and 2% are Democrats! Some of this change is certainly due to group re-definition, but the difference is staggering.

The true right-ward shift, then, appears to be among the disaffected, not the value voters. The animating issues for these voters are the simple ones - after all, one of their principle identifiers is that they have little interest in politics. Bush's hometown style, his toughness and sticktoitiveness on Iraq, and his lack of enamorment with the finer things, philosophically as much as physically, have made him a huge favorite down in the non-nattering classes. Unfortunately, I did not see Pew data on Disaffecteds' votes in 2000, so it is difficult to know how much impact the war had in pulling them to the Red side. War or no war, however, they voted on Bush's image. Values are part of that, for sure. However, the answer for the Democrats is not to go out and get some nice, feminine Joe Lieberman type. It's to go out and get somebody macho, who is tough enough to earn their votes, and has the gonads to stand up to America's enemies. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you... Hillary Clinton.

Posted by Chops at May 14, 2005 2:00 AM