The most startling factor in the Presidential election of 2004 could deliver an even bigger shock in the battle for the White House in 2008, if the nation witnesses the possible repeat of the decisive impact of “values voters”.
Four years ago, the media largely ignored the significance of moral and family issues until Election Day exit polls revealed their crucial role in the GOP victory. In the same way, seasoned political observers – especially those who consider an Obama victory a foregone conclusion – have ignored the very real chance that social conservatives may bring about a stunning upset on November 4th.
Four years ago, when asked “what mattered most in deciding how you voted for president,” more voters cited “moral values” than any other factor. According to the authoritative Edison-Mitofsky exit poll, 22% named “moral values” compared to 20% indicating “the economy and jobs,” 19% choosing “terrorism,” 15% “Iraq” and a mere 8% citing “health care.”
Among those who chose “moral values” as their chief concern, a stunning 80% voted for George W. Bush, while his opponent, John Kerry, got a similar 80% show of support from those who primarily worried about “the economy and jobs.” Nearly one quarter of the electorate in 2004 identified as “white evangelical and born-again Christians” and they backed President Bush by a four-to-one margin. Without this overwhelming support from Christian conservatives, Bush could never have won his 51 to 48% victory over Senator Kerry.
Considering the hugely significant role of values voters in the last presidential race, it makes no sense for leading electoral experts to assume that they’ve become suddenly irrelevant in 2008. Did the social conservatives who tipped the scales to Bush and Cheney in a tough race four years ago somehow vanish or give up?
Conventional wisdom suggests that values voters don’t matter this year for several important reasons. First, it’s assumed that social conservatives remain lukewarm on John McCain and won’t give him the huge turnout and overwhelming support that propelled George W. Bush to victory. Second, according to many leading pundits, Barack Obama has neutralized moral issues with his inclusive rhetoric about unity and respect and his comfort in talking about his Christian faith (though not about his long-time pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who has all-but-vanished from media coverage of the campaign). Finally, and most significantly, all major analysts seem to agree that the financial crisis and looming recession have crowded out all other public concerns, leaving little chance that worried voters will once again find themselves “distracted” by social issues like abortion, marriage, or gun rights.