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Will the Return of Values Voters Bring Another Election Day Surprise?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

For several reasons, these assumptions may look shaky on Election Day. Yes, it’s true that John McCain has never been a favorite of Christian conservatives (especially after his self-destructive denunciation of Falwell and Robertson in the 2000 primary campaign). But his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, and renewed attention to his strong pro-life record over the course of 30 years (he gets a perfect “Zero” lifetime rating from Planned Parenthood), have helped to rally the troops. The huge, enthusiastic turnouts at recent GOP rallies (particularly those featuring Governor Palin) and the determined, ongoing efforts by prominent organizations on the religious right suggest that “values voters” may return in force and startle the pundits once again.

Most obviously, Obama efforts at “Christian outreach” have largely failed, recognized as a phony, manipulative and, ultimately, insulting strategy. Obama may claim he understands and sympathizes with the concerns of religious traditionalists, but he’s running on the most pro-abortion platform in major party history (calling for a return to federal funding for abortions for poor women) and he famously suggested that the question of when life begins was “above my pay grade.”Of course, leaders of left-leaning Christian and Jewish denominations enthusiastically back Obama (just as they backed Kerry) but traditionalists remain deeply suspicious. Those concerns go far beyond the silly charges that Obama is some sort of “secret Muslim” and involve his slimy, equivocal treatment of all religious questions, whether involving his boyhood study of the Koran in Indonesia, or his twenty years of loyal discipleship with the America-hating Reverend Wright.

Finally, there’s no reason to assume that universal concern about the state of the economy means that religious conservatives no longer care about the future of marriage or the protection of the unborn.

In fact, a dramatic turnaround in voter sentiment in California (of all places) indicates precisely the sort of mobilization of values voters that could derail the Obama Express on November 4th.

The citizens of the Golden State face a fateful choice in the wake of the State Supreme Court’s controversial 4 to 3 decision to mandate gay marriage. Proposition 8 on the California ballot adds to the State Constitution a provision declaring that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California.” In one of the most liberal and lopsidedly Democratic states in the union, gay activists felt confident they would defeat this measure by a decisive margin, but recent surveys show an unexpected surge of support for traditional marriage. A Survey USA poll shows a swing of 8 points in the three weeks between September 25th and October 17th, from a 5% margin against the proposition to a 3% margin for it. “Equality for All,” the group leading the fight for homosexual marriage, acknowledged to the Wall Street Journal on October 22nd that their internal polling also showed a shift in voter sentiment toward traditional marriage – with a 4% current lead for the proposition over-ruling the Supreme Court.

In the last days before the election, even voters in deep-blue California (a state the McCain campaign has all-but-abandoned) seem to be rallying against gay marriage – despite Obama and Biden strongly and outspokenly opposing Proposition 8. This should encourage values conservatives to recognize that many (and perhaps most) Americans still care deeply about moral issues.

It’s now crucial for Senator McCain, Governor Palin and their supporters to emphasize those issues --- not even at a time of economic crisis, but especially at a time of economic crisis.

Controversies regarding the future of the family aren’t a distraction from financial challenges; for most Americans, there’s an inescapable connection between economic and values issues. Nothing brings long-term security and prosperity more reliably than a stable, traditional family life and nothing predisposes people for a life of poverty more than out-of-wedlock birth and marital chaos. The educational success of our children, which directly determines their future financial future, depends more on the values they learn at home than the quality of their schools. Learning to work hard, to save money and to live within your means remains a dependable path to economic advancement and the failure to learn those lessons (especially by political and business leaders) helped to create the current crisis.

Moreover, the big-government “spread the wealth” programs favored by Barack Obama represent an assault on the family as well as a threat to the free-market economy. Today’s radical Democratic platform calls for a vast expansion of federal power that would make families and parenthood less important and less necessary.

Consider Obama’s promise of “universal pre-school” for all children age three and above. He insists that attendance at such federally mandated schools will remain voluntary, but paying for them will not. All citizens – including those mothers who choose to stay home with their little ones – will share in financing governmental day care, in effect punishing women who take care of their kids while rewarding those who want to leave them with someone else.

At the other end of life, there’s also legitimate concern over Obama’s support for re-imposition of a crushing death tax, with a confiscatory rate of 45%. Nothing represents a more fundamental right for many families than the ability to pass on to their own children the wealth that they’ve accumulated through honest hard work –and on which they’ve already paid taxes as the parents earned the money.

No wonder that married voters already tilt decisively toward McCain, according to all polls. (The most recent IBD-TIPP survey gives him a margin of 50% to 43%). Obama leads among the public in general only because of his huge lead among single voters (about a third of the electorate).

According to exit polls in 2004, Bush won married voters 57% to 42%. If McCain comes close to that margin he too will win the election.

The chances for a come-from-behind victory for Republicans depend almost entirely upon the return of values voters --- most of them married people who care deeply about religious faith, traditional virtues and family issues. Those voters abandoned the Republicans in the disastrous off-year election of 2006 --- repulsed by the Mark Foley scandal and numerous other indications of ethical lapses among flawed and compromised conservatives in Congress.

If the values voters return to the polls (and to the GOP fold) victory remains possible.

The 2004 prominence of social conservatives was more than a fluke or a temporary phenomenon. The Los Angeles Times has conducted its own exit polling since 1992, asking voters “which two issues they considered most important in deciding how they would vote.” In 2004, 40% listed “moral/ethical values” as one of those top two – a strikingly similar percentage to the 35% who named moral values in 2000 and the 40% who did so in 1996. On a related note, the percentage of religious people who participate in recent elections has remained stable and reliable: 41% of voters in both 2004 and 2000 said they attended church at least once a week and they voted decisively, both times, for George W. Bush.

Leading commentators largely ignored these citizens in 2004 until the results of the election and the exit polls forced them to reconsider. If Republicans concentrate on mobilizing social conservatives between now and Election Day, and speak clearly and persuasively about the powerful connection between economic and moral issues, then values voters may provide the defenders of conventional wisdom with an even bigger surprise than they did four years ago.

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