Instant election analysis is like instant breakfast -- frothy and lacking in substance. Remember the angry white males of 1994? They never existed, but became, through constant repetition, the "lesson" of the 1994 race. Remember the soccer moms and the "year of the woman"? Most of these categories were meaningless.
This time, the talking heads are rushing to interpret the 2004 election as the year of the values voter. A little skepticism is in order. Twenty-two percent of the electorate identified "moral values" as the "most important issue" shaping his or her vote. No other single issue garnered an equal or higher percentage. But that hardly yields the interpretation that values were the most important election issue.
The economy/jobs were cited by 20 percent of voters, 80 percent of whom voted for Kerry. Concern about terrorism also played a large role, with 19 percent saying it was the most important issue. Eighty-six percent of those voters chose Bush. And the war in Iraq motivated another 15 percent of voters, 73 percent of whom chose Kerry. Other issues like education, taxes and health care were cited by fewer than 10 percent each.
If we add together those who voted on terrorism and the war in Iraq, we see 34 percent of voters choosing foreign policy as the most important issue -- though these voters did not opt for the same candidate.
Even if we assume that the exit polls were completely accurate -- and in light of the Election Day fiasco when leaks indicated that Kerry had won handily, there is strong reason to doubt this -- the numbers do not add up to a moral values election.
I'd love to see the American people say with one voice that they are disgusted with the trash-mouth Hollywood types, the porn industry that invades our computers and our cable channels, the unethical businessmen, the foul reality shows, the abortion mills, kids killing kids over sneakers, the drugs, the child abuse, the shock jocks ... well, I have only 750 words so I'll stop there.
The point is: We've got a long way to go before that day dawns. Frankly, even on beloved Fox News Channel -- the greatest thing to happen to the American media since the birth of Bill Buckley -- we must endure ads for Cialis and Viagra. I must dive for the remote so that my 8- and 11-year-olds (for whom Brit Hume is a rock star) do not hear the voice-over saying, "Ask your partner what she had in mind." Notice that they never say "wife" or "husband." And then, "For erections lasting longer than 4 hours, contact your doctor." No kidding. But do my kids have to hear this?
This is not to suggest that elections teach us nothing. The 2004 results certainly prove that the economy -- or perceptions about the economy -- are not always determinative. Only 47 percent of the electorate rated the economy as excellent or good. But the incumbent was re-elected. Before every recent conflict in American history, the experts have warned that the American people have no stomach for sacrifice and will tolerate very few losses in battle. President Bush challenged that assumption. He asked the American people to support not just a punishment raid on Afghanistan, but a far-reaching war on terror that would include overthrowing one of the terror masters -- the monster Saddam Hussein.
It has not been easy, and we have suffered more casualties than predicted. Still, it seems that a majority (52 percent) of the country continues to believe that going to war in Iraq was the right decision. They say this despite the fact that only 45 percent believe things are going "somewhat" (34 percent) or "very well" (11 percent) for us there. A solid 55 percent agree with the president that the war in Iraq is a part of the war on terror, and not, as Kerry would have it (on some days), a distraction from it. That suggests a mature electorate, willing to support a policy they believe is right even when it brings short-term hardship.
Finally, there is a yellow light blinking in the exit poll data that Republicans will ignore at their peril. Though only 8 percent of voters said health care was the "most important issue" in this campaign, they did register worry about it -- a worry that could become more decisive should foreign policy become less salient in coming elections. Ninety-three percent of voters described themselves as "very" (70 percent) or "somewhat" (23 percent) concerned about the cost and availability of healthcare.
George W. Bush and the Republican Congress have a full plate.