Sun, Nov 07, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Pundits quarrel over relevance of morals in poll

NATIONAL VALUES It has been claimed that the US presidential election was decided on George W. Bush's moral credibility, but others say this isn't so

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Citing a major election-day poll that found "moral values" ranked at the top of the list of issues that swayed the national electorate, some news organizations have portrayed matters like gay marriage and abortion as the sleeper factors of a campaign that was mostly fought over war, jobs, healthcare and terrorism.

Democrats have looked at the data as evidence that they desperately need to do a better job connecting with cultural traditionalists. Conservative groups have used the survey data to make a case that mainstream America agrees with the conservative agenda that Bush now has a mandate to act upon.

"Those 25 percent of voters who said moral values were the animating issues in this election -- that is us," said Austin Ruse, a conservative Catholic and president of the Culture of Life Foundation, slightly exaggerating the figure -- 22 percent.

"We understand that President Bush is a very loyal guy, and we believe that President Bush will be loyal to those who put him there in a very tough time," Ruse said.

Flawed question

But some Democrats and independent pollsters say these assumptions are largely based on a flawed polling question that has skewed the results to make it seem as if cultural matters had a more powerful effect than they actually did.

Though they acknowledge that cultural issues were an important factor in Bush's re-election, they say they worry that that Republicans, who disagree with their critiques of the data, and Bush will act forcefully on a false mandate.

"People have misinterpreted the election and that misinterpretation may well have an impact on the intra-party debate and on public policy," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who worked for Kerry's campaign.

At issue is the major exit poll that The Associated Press and the television news networks conducted on Tuesday upon which many major news organizations have relied upon as well. It asked voters to pick one issue that most influenced their decision among seven choices: taxes, education, Iraq, terrorism, the economy and jobs, healthcare and moral values.

Gary Langer, director of polling for ABC News, one of the sponsors of the poll, said a major flaw in the question is that "moral values" is not the same sort of specific issue that taxes or Iraq are.

"Healthcare is an issue, terrorism is an issue; moral values is much more of a personal characteristic. It is very broadly defined," he said.

Langer and others said "moral values" became a sort of catch-all for Bush's voters that could include everything from gay marriage to vulgarity on television.

Several independent pollsters said they were suspicious because a much higher percentage of people listed "moral values" as their top concern in the election-day poll than in many of the public polls conducted before the election.

Most important issues

Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the Harris Poll for Harris Interactive, said in a posting on the Internet that the difference may be because most of the pre-election surveys ask voters to mention on their own the most important issues of the election. The election-day survey offered a list of choices.

"When so few people [1 percent in our October survey] mentioned moral values spontaneously, I very much doubt the pundits' conclusions that this was really more important than the issues that came at the top of our list when they were not prompted," Taylor wrote on the Web site of the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers.

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