Security elected Bush

Thank goodness for pollster Brad Coker and his Mason-Dixon research organization.

Their late polls may rescue us from a wrong-headed interpretation of the 2004 election results.

Coker offers an alternative to Warren Mitofsky’s flawed exit-poll-driven conclusion that moral values were the driving force behind this election.
Thank goodness for pollster Brad Coker and his Mason-Dixon research organization.

Their late polls may rescue us from a wrong-headed interpretation of the 2004 election results.

Coker offers an alternative to Warren Mitofsky’s flawed exit-poll-driven conclusion that moral values were the driving force behind this election.

Yes, the fact that moral values were more frequently mentioned in this year’s exit poll is significant, but it’s not as significant as it’s being touted to be. Although morality was a plurality winner in the exit poll’s “most important issue” sweepstakes, barely one in five voters (22 percent) said values were the top issue this time.

Based on that slender finding about the rising importance of moral values, Democrats are acting oddly. Some are shouting that religious-right “jihadists” terrorized the election. Others are running out to purchase choir robes for the next round of voting. Others are looking to liberal seminarians for new, more “Democratic” definitions of moral values.

But all these actions are based on a faulty conclusion. This election, at its core, was not about moral values. It was about national security.

Here’s where Coker’s findings are instructive. Mason-Dixon conducted telephone polls in 11 battleground states during the closing days of the campaign. These polls probably offer the most illuminating and systematic evaluation of what happened Nov. 2.

Mason-Dixon polls were found to be the most accurate in 2002, according to a survey undertaken by the National Council on Public Polls (NCPP). The NCPP found that in 23 gubernatorial and Senate races, Mason-Dixon called only one wrong winner and had an average error on candidate polls of only 1.8 percent. According to early tabulations, it appears that Mason-Dixon will again lead the pack when the 2004 results are compiled by NCPP.

In each of the battleground states, Coker’s interviewers asked voters to identify the issue that “will be most important in determining your vote for president this year.”

Voters were offered seven choices: the economy; terrorism and homeland security; Iraq; healthcare, including Medicare; jobs; taxes; and moral issues and family values. Other responses were recorded as well.

Using this choice-set, the option of “terrorism and homeland security” dominated all other issues in each of the 11 states. In all but two states, 40 percent or more of the voters chose the terrorism-security option as most important. “Moral issues and family values” was the second most frequently chosen set of issues, but it lagged far behind national security, being chosen by just 20 to 27 percent of voters in the battleground states.

But this finding alone adds little to our understanding of what happened. In fact, you could almost produce the same result by recombining various issue categories in Mitofsky’s exit polls.

Where Coker nailed the election was in a question about the candidate qualities Bush voters considered most important in their choice for president. This question was asked in 10 of the 11 states surveyed. Again, voters were offered seven choices: he cares about people like me, he has strong religious faith, he is honest and trustworthy, he is a strong leader, he is intelligent, he will bring about needed change and he has a clear stand on the issues. The overwhelming winner was “he is a strong leader.”

In the 10 states, an average of 45 percent of the voters chose President Bush on leadership. Only one-third as many voters (15 percent on average) chose Bush because “he has strong religious faith.” In fact, perceptions that Bush is “honest and trustworthy” outweighed his religiosity in every state. Bush’s faith finished further down the list in non-Southern states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and New Hampshire. In those states, Bush’s “clear stand on the issues” outweighed matters of faith.

As a person of faith myself, I am cheered that more voters are considering beliefs and moral values in making their candidate choices, but this year it was Bush’s perceived strength to secure the nation that carried the day.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.

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