blogenlust
11.06.2004

Terrorism or Values?


The conventional wisdom that suggests George W. Bush won the election because of values and gay marriage initiatives on several state ballots has taken a few hits in the last day or two. Many people, including myself, tried to explain the huge turnout for Bush by arguing that moral value issues like gay marriage motivated evangelical Christians to come out and vote in large numbers. While this did happen, a few people are making the claim that it does not, by itself, explain Bush's victory. For instance, Paul Freedman writes in Slate that it was not values, but terrorism:
More to the point, the morality gap didn't decide the election. Voters who cited moral issues as most important did give their votes overwhelmingly to Bush (80 percent to 18 percent), and states where voters saw moral issues as important were more likely to be red ones. But these differences were no greater in 2004 than in 2000. If you're trying to explain why the president's vote share in 2004 is bigger than his vote share in 2000, values don't help. If the morality gap doesn't explain Bush's re-election, what does? A good part of the answer lies in the terrorism gap. Nationally, 49 percent of voters said they trusted Bush but not Kerry to handle terrorism; only 31 percent trusted Kerry but not Bush. This 18-point gap is particularly significant in that terrorism is strongly tied to vote choice: 99 percent of those who trusted only Kerry on the issue voted for him, and 97 percent of those who trusted only Bush voted for him. Terrorism was cited by 19 percent of voters as the most important issue, and these citizens gave their votes to the president by an even larger margin than morality voters: 86 percent for Bush, 14 percent for Kerry. These differences hold up at the state level even when each state's past Bush vote is taken into account. When you control for that variable, a 10-point increase in the percentage of voters citing terrorism as the most important problem translates into a 3-point Bush gain. A 10-point increase in morality voters, on the other hand, has no effect. Nor does putting an anti-gay-marriage measure on the ballot. So, if you want to understand why Bush was re-elected, stop obsessing about the morality gap and start looking at the terrorism gap.
Similarly, but also a bit surprisingly, David Brooks argues that it was Bush's job approval that put him over the top on Tuesday:
He won because 53 percent of voters approved of his performance as president. Fifty-eight percent of them trust Bush to fight terrorism. They had roughly equal confidence in Bush and Kerry to handle the economy. Most approved of the decision to go to war in Iraq. Most see it as part of the war on terror. The fact is that if you think we are safer now, you probably voted for Bush. If you think we are less safe, you probably voted for Kerry. That's policy, not fundamentalism. The upsurge in voters was an upsurge of people with conservative policy views, whether they are religious or not.
Frankly, the values argument makes more sense to me, but only because I really believe that Bush has not made us safer and that Iraq had nothing to do with the War on Terror. However, if these numbers are accurate, a pretty good case can be made that the threat of terrorism was a big boost for the President. I also don't think this means that Democrats should give up on the value issues many of us have been discussing since Tuesday. I still think it is something Democrats need to work on, even if it didn't necessarily cost us the election.