Since no one in U.S. journalism seems to know how to read an opinion poll—or, rather, how to report it with context—we thought readers might be interested in a report by the Economist, a conservative British magazine, on all those news stories about the triumph of “moral values” in this year’s election. The magazine points out that, when looking at the trend line, those who cited moral values as their most important concern dropped precipitously this year compared to previous presidential elections:
1996: 40 percent
2000: 35 percent
2004: 22 percent
“Thus, in those [first] two elections,” reported the magazine, “about half the electorate said they voted on moral matters; this time, only a fifth did.” This happened even though there were gay marriage ballot measures in 11 states to motivate such voters.
While it is true that such “values” voters may have swung the election to George Bush, his margin was so tiny that the same thing is true of many other voter groups. Bush may have been elected by his relatively strong showing among Latinos, for instance—he lost the Latino vote by only 12 percentage points, instead of the 30 point spread projected by pre-election surveys. Or Bush may have been elected because the heavily pro-Kerry youth vote sat out the election (while other groups saw a sharp increase in turnout, 18- to 24-year-old voters remained about the same as in 2000).
There is no un-ringing the bell, of course—moral arbiters in the political world now have enhanced power and influence as a result of their “mandate” created by the early, uncooked news coverage.