It's the culture, stupid.
While there were many important issues in Tuesday's historic election, the single most important one for the largest bloc of voters was not the economy, the Iraq War or the Terror War. It was the cultural war.
Democrat John Kerry was defeated by a resolute army of voters who marched out in massive numbers to strike a peaceful blow at the ballot box for a traditionalist vision of American society.
In the national exit poll conducted for the Associated Press and major television networks, as posted at www.MSNBC.com, voters were asked which of the following issues "mattered most in deciding their vote for president": education, taxes, health care, Iraq, terrorism, economy/jobs or moral values. This very poll, mind you, has been widely criticized for showing a bias in favor of Kerry that was not borne out by the actual election results (suggesting it must have surveyed a disproportionately large number of liberals). Even so, "moral values" topped the list of most important issues with 22 percent (followed by economy/jobs, 20 percent; terrorism, 19 percent; Iraq, 15 percent; health care, 8 percent; taxes, 5 percent; education, 4 percent).
Among the 22 percent who said "moral values" was most important in deciding their vote for president, 80 percent voted for George W. Bush.
What the Democrats needed Tuesday was a nation that placed less importance on moral values.
They also could have used an electorate that included fewer churchgoers and married people. According to the poll, Bush beat Kerry, 61 percent to 39 percent, among voters who attend religious services weekly. He won a remarkable 70 percent of Protestants who do so, and 56 percent of Catholics.
Kerry, by contrast, won 62 percent of those who say they "never" attend religious services. But they accounted for only 14 percent of voters.
Although Kerry was only the third Catholic ever nominated for president by a major U.S. party (Al Smith and John F. Kennedy were the first two), Bush beat him nationally among all Catholic voters (churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike), 52 percent to 47 percent. This group made up 27 percent of the national electorate.
Marriage was a double-barreled issue in this election. Bush crushed Kerry among married voters generally, 57 percent to 42 percent, and also among married women, 55 percent to 44 percent. Married voters who have children went for Bush in a landslide, 59 percent to 40 percent.
Kerry, meanwhile, rolled up an impressive 58 percent of the unmarried vote.
In the year 2004, the basic human institution of marriage has become a massive demographic obstacle for the national Democratic Party.
Eleven states considered ballot initiatives to ban same-sex marriage. The initiatives gathered large majorities everywhere. In the crucial state of Ohio -- where advocates promoted it as prohibiting judges "from anti-democratic efforts to redefine marriage, such as was done by a bare majority of the judges of the Massachusetts Supreme Court" -- it won 62 percent.
Moreover, there is strong evidence that moral values and the marriage issue gave President Bush the edge he needed in this decisive state.
Although the exit poll for Ohio (where unemployment exceeds the national rate) does indicate the economy was more of an issue here than elsewhere, it was balanced by a roughly equal concern for moral values. Twenty-four percent of Ohio voters said the economy was the one most important issue deciding their vote, and 23 percent said it was moral values. But "economy" voters went 83 percent for Kerry, and "moral values" voters went 85 percent for Bush. Without moral values as a top issue (and a marriage initiative to sharply define it), Bush may well have lost Ohio and with it the White House.
Tellingly, Bush won 65 percent of Ohio voters who say they attend religious services weekly, including 69 percent of Protestants of that description and 65 percent of Catholics.
Sixty percent of married women voters in Ohio said they voted for Bush.
Forget "soccer moms" and "security moms." In this election, a significant majority of Americans who are simply pursuing the traditional societal model of getting married, having kids and trying to raise those kids right -- by, among other things, going to church regularly -- voted Republican.
The America that still embraces the ideal of family depicted in the type of prime-time television shows (such as "Leave it to Beaver") that the networks don't produce anymore came shouting out from this year's network presidential exit poll. Its message was loud and clear: We don't want a Massachusetts liberal running our country.
This poses a peculiar dilemma for the Democratic Party. To become a truly national party again it needs to do one of two things: Either seek an agenda that appeals more to traditional American families, or seek an America that has fewer of them.