Are we seeing the end, for a while, of the dominance of values in presidential elections? And if so, is that a bad omen for the Republicans? This is not a prediction, it is mere conjecture, but let's consider the possibility.
Since 1972's McGovern campaign, the Democratic Party has so blatantly offended the values, lifestyles, sensibilities and traditions of America that they have driven a vast number of voters into the Republican column.
This abrasive hostility to family, faith and tradition by the national Democratic Party was also conspicuously visible in the popular media, journalism and academe -- which, while not explicitly a part of the Democratic Party, still added to the sense of moral decay that most Americans were feeling and thereby benefited the GOP. This resulted in Republicans winning six of the nine presidential elections between 1972 and 2004, the GOP losing only after Watergate and to Bill Clinton (and then holding Clinton to less than 50 percent of the national vote).
Of course, conventional issues still mattered a lot. For example, in 1980, Reagan ran powerfully on strengthening America in the face of Soviet aggression and promising to cut taxes and spending. Conversely, values were always important either explicitly or as an atmospheric in national elections. For example, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's divorce seriously hurt him in his 1964 bid for the Republican nomination.
So it is never a binary matter of the public caring or not caring about values. Rather, as elections are decided on the margins -- by the shift of only a few million voters in even a landslide presidential election -- the question I am considering is whether we are witnessing a shift of emphasis by a critical few million traditionally Republican voters away from values in the 2008 election.
Of course, the first piece of evidence for this theory is the surprisingly good performance, so far, of Rudy Giuliani with conservative Protestant voters. (But keep in mind, they are hardly the only values voters. You can find values voters in country clubs, boardrooms and even amongst nonbelievers who nonetheless value tradition and conscious moral standards.)
The interesting question is whether Rudy is doing well with conservative Christian voters simply because there is no viable candidate who shares their values or whether the reduced primacy of values as a motivator is causing Rudy's support amongst such traditional values voters.
Recently I was talking with a GOP telephone contribution solicitor. He spends hours every day talking with registered Republicans trying to raise money for the GOP. He tells me that in many of these brief conversations, he is hearing very conservative, small-donor Republicans expressing support for Rudy because of his "strength" in the face of the terrorist threat.
I, for one, am not surprised that a voter would consider fighting terrorism to be the prime qualification for president. After Sept. 11, I gave up many of my libertarian policy values, as they seemed inconsistent with American national security.
But if Giuliani is benefiting in the GOP primary from the new ascendance of terrorism as a dominating or even single issue (ironic, in that abortion was and surely still is, for many voters, the single voting issue), will the Democratic nominee benefit from other issues trumping values for some values voters in the general election?
For example, will the global warming/environment/alternative energy issue or the cost and availability of health care attract otherwise values voters to the Democratic column next November?
As I travel the country talking with people, I think it is obvious there is a heightened sense of danger in many people's minds. For some, it is global terrorism, and for others, it is global warming. There is a deep worry about the future of American prosperity; for many, the affordability of health care hangs hard on their thoughts.
So, yes, if I had to bet, I would bet that next November, at least a million or two traditional Republican values voters will cast their ballots for the candidate who they think will best handle some secular issue that alarms them.
But it is not a foregone conclusion that the Democratic candidate will be the beneficiary of such judgments. For example, in a recent Zogby poll, energy independence was cited as the leading domestic concern -- even above health care. Energy independence voters may well favor the Republican candidate who supports more oil drilling over the Democrat who would ban further drilling.
And for those who worry about continued prosperity, the Democratic candidate, who almost inevitably will be calling for higher taxes and more social spending, may well (and correctly) appear to be a threat to future prosperity.
Even on health care issues, Gary Andre, writing in The Washington Times a few weeks ago, identified through careful polling that even Hillary has to use Republican policy rhetoric (such as the use of the word "choice") to describe (falsely) her health proposals.
So although a substantial number of GOP values voters may be looking for other issues next November, they may yet be Republican issues -- and Republican voters. But only if the GOP candidates understand and address the changing judgments of these key voters.