Sex v. War in '04

Posted: Nov 17, 2004 12:00 AM
What's the Worst Prediction About the Blue-Red Divide by a Journalist? A close contest, but I'd give the award to The Washington Post's Thomas Byrne Edsall, who wrote a January 2003 essay in the Atlantic Monthly presciently subtitled, "The 'morality gap' is becoming the key variable in American politics."

"Whereas elections once pitted the party of the working class against the party of Wall Street," wrote Edsall, "they now pit voters who believe in a fixed and universal morality against those who see moral issues, especially sexual ones, as elastic and subject to personal choice."

What with 22 percent of American voters picking "moral values" as their top political issue this year, Mr. Edsall is beginning to sound like a political genius, no? Unfortunately, he went on to write: "If Red and Blue America are now divided most strongly by sexual and moral values, what does this mean for the elections in the years ahead? The (2002) elections were dominated not by sexual or moral values, but rather by the one thing that trumps sex: war. But sex, unlike war, does not go away; its return to political center stage is inevitable. And that is decidedly to the Democrats' advantage."

Well, better luck next time.

Mr. Edsall noted that overlaying a map of the states that have the most home-video porn movies with the electoral map almost perfectly predicted red states and blue states in the Bush-Gore election.

A similar map is now circulating, courtesy of The New York Times, that gives blue-state voters something to feel good about: Divorce rates tend to be higher in red states. Aha! So much for moral values. Red Americans are all hypocrites.

Certainly there are high divorce rates in every American state, and if the whole blue-red thing can get some red states focusing on innovative ways to reduce divorce rates (say, a two-year waiting period for a contested no-fault divorce), I'm all for it.

But I got curious, like maybe you are, about the reasons behind this new cultural divide.

I don't have a staff of statisticians to crunch numbers for me, but I do have my trusty copy of the 2002 Statistical Abstract of the United States. So just for fun, I decided to compare the candidates' own two home states: Red Texas and Blue Massachusetts.

The first clue is to look at the marriage rates: In 2001, Massachusetts had a lower-than-average divorce rate (2.4 per 1,000 residents, compared to a national average of 4 per 1,000 residents). But it also had a lower-than-average marriage rate: 6.4 per 1,000 residents vs. 8.4 in the national average. Texas was the exact opposite: a higher-than-average crude divorce rate and a higher-than-average marriage rate.

Hmm. I smell a demographic rat. People in the United States, on average, marry in their mid to late 20s, and half of all divorces take place in the first seven years of marriage. Marriage and divorce are thus both disproportionately a young person's game. The more young people in a state, the more marriages and divorces.

Could this explain part of the divorce divide? Yup, at least a little bit. According to Census data, about 22 percent of Massachusetts residents are 55-plus, compared to 17 percent of Texans. Red states tend to be younger than blue states overall.

Notice something else about the great red-blue divorce divide: Red states, especially the Bible Belt South, have lots of minorities (and minorities have higher divorce rates, in part due to lower socioeconomic status). Yup. That's a big part: Massachusetts may be blue, but it isn't very black. It has only half as many African Americans as Texas (5 percent vs. 11 percent). Add in the Latinos, and it's no contest: In 2000 just 12 percent of Massachusetts' citizens were black or Hispanic, compared to 44 percent of Texans.

Enough of these parlor games. Can we agree? Some of my best friends are from blue states. Most blue-staters are perfectly nice people with good personal values. And divorce rates are not just a red-state problem.

And oh, by the way, as an election issue, sex sometimes does trump war. Ask President Bush.