Evangelicals' support comes at a high price for the GOP

The evangelical right is taking a great deal of credit for the Bush victory.

Citing the large number of Bush voters who were drawn to the polls by the gay-marriage issue, Right-wing evangelicals claim that their efforts got the president reelected. But evangelical support came at a horrific price for the president’s political fortunes.The evangelical right is taking a great deal of credit for the Bush victory.

Citing the large number of Bush voters who were drawn to the polls by the gay-marriage issue, Right-wing evangelicals claim that their efforts got the president reelected. But evangelical support came at a horrific price for the president’s political fortunes.

It may be that the strenuous exertions of the religious right saved the president from defeat, but it was its policies that have brought the Republican Party to the point where it needed rescuing in the first place.

Consider the fact that Bush carried married women by 54 percent to 45 percent while losing single women 36-63! This 36-point swing is largely due to the pro-life positions of the religious right and their fervent embrace by the Republican Party.

Bush’s leadership on education reform, his sponsorship of prescription-drug coverage and his skill at correlating the war on terror abroad to the defense of families at home did the trick with married women. While married men backed Bush 59-40, their wives were not far behind.

But these issues failed to deliver the backing of the 38 percent of all women who are unmarried — whether never married, widowed or divorced. Among those women, Bush could do no right, an alienation that largely stems from his position on abortion, stem-cell research and the lexicon of right-wing issues.

In one of the all-time great examples of spin, America’s right-wing evangelicals have heralded the Bush election victory as an affirmation of their pro-life positions. They base their claims of victory on a simple coding quirk in the exit polling.

When voters left the voting booths, the now-notorious exit pollsters asked what they considered the most important issue to be. In the USA Today exit polls, 22 percent cited “moral values,” compared with 20 percent who mentioned the economy and 34 percent who cited either terrorism or Iraq.

By lumping all responses that related to morality into one category, the exit pollsters have done a massive disservice, one of many this year. If my own past polling is any guide, I am sure that the majority of the “moral” responses related specifically to gay marriage and not to abortion. The left vastly overreached on the gay-marriage issue, but this should not obscure the fact that America remains solidly pro-choice on abortion and strongly in favor of stem-cell research.

The Democratic Party is a demographic institution. More than half of Kerry’s vote came from three groups that make up about one-third of the population: blacks, Hispanics and unmarried white women. While the Republican Party is based largely on economic and intellectual affinity, the Democrats rest on these three pillars of strength.

Bush has laudably moved to take away the Hispanic vote. While Al Gore defeated him among Hispanics, 65-35, Kerry won this swing vote by only 55-42. But the president has been unable to crack the solidly Democratic voting habits of African-Americans and single women.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, Bill Weld in Massachusetts and George Pataki in New York showed us all what can happen when a Republican sheds the pro-life label: Economic issues drive voters to the GOP en masse. So the evangelical support that is so widely lauded for electing the president came with a very, very high price tag.

One element of the Democrats’ hoped-for coalition that failed to materialize was the wide support they had anticipated among young voters. First-time voters backed Kerry, as expected, but only by 54-45, and voters under 30 years old supported him by only 54-44. (All other age groups backed Bush over Kerry).

As these young voters realize Winston Churchill’s famous admonition that those who are not liberal when they are 20 lack a heart while those who are not conservative at 40 do not have a brain, they will, undoubtedly, drift to the right.

The Democrats ruined their election chances, in part, by drifting too far to the left on gay marriage. The Republicans must be sure not to return the favor by going too far to the right on abortion rights.
Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.