By Mark Mellman - 11/10/04 12:00 AM EST
Too simple. Too facile.A misleading interpretation of Election 2004 is being quickly etched in stone. It was, they say, a values election, with such issues as gay marriage providing the touchstone.
Too simple. Too facile.
First, the election took place in a context that was mostly favorable to the incumbent. It is true that going into the election about 51 percent of Americans said the country was off on the wrong track. But the last time an incumbent president was ousted, 72 percent held that view. “Only” 50 percent approved of President Bush’s performance in office, but, when his father lost by five points, just 31 percent approved of the elder Bush’s performance. While about 40 percent rated the economy positively, that number was in the low teens when the elder Bush was defeated.
Moreover, as Republicans have argued for months, we do not defeat incumbents in the midst of war.
Second, before embracing the values interpretation wholeheartedly, one must look closely at the poll results from which conclusions are being drawn. When asked the most important issue in determining their votes, 22 percent did check off “moral values.” A larger 37 percent indicated that a core domestic issue such as the economy, jobs, healthcare or education was central. Most, but not all, of the moral-values voters supported Bush. That means only about 18 percent of the electorate consisted of “Bush values” voters.
But the most important question left open by the values election interpretation is what values we are talking about.
This election was not only about values, but there is no doubt that values played an essential role. Our own polling for Sen. John Kerry repeatedly demonstrated that the single most important determinant of vote was the extent to which voters believed that one candidate or the other shared their values.
But this was hardly a blowout for Bush. Going into Election Day, almost exactly the same number of voters said Bush and Kerry shared their values.
“Values” is not simply code for gay marriage or abortion. The Los Angeles Times exit poll makes this quite explicit. Only 15 percent selected “social issues such as abortion and gay marriage” as the most important issues. Moreover, Kerry won those voters who said abortion and gay marriage were their top issues!
Indeed, most exit-poll respondents shared Kerry’s views on those issues. A mere 16 percent said abortion should never be legal. Nearly two-thirds said it should be at least “mostly legal.” While majorities oppose gay marriage, as did Kerry and most Democrats, just 37 percent of voters believe there should be no legal recognition for gay couples.
Values mean much more than simple issue positions. From a voter’s perspective, the issues a president faces change. People do not and cannot know what concrete decisions the next president will face. When a voter says a candidate shares his or her values, that citizen means the president will make those decisions in the same way, bringing to bear the same considerations that the voter would.
For voters, values are not just attitudes toward guns and gays, they are the experiences, priorities and principles a president will employ in making critical decisions for our country. Values are the expression of the candidate’s essential character.
Democrats do represent values that are central to the American people — opportunity, respecting others for who they are, the right to decent healthcare and a loyal employer. But to capture voters’ imaginations, Democrats need to stop just spewing policy tracts and start making clear that values-laden considerations animate our party’s decisionmaking. A collection of programs and policies do emerge from values the party shares with the American people. But these policies must be anchored in deeply held and widely shared American values.
In short, voters need to know what makes Democrats tick.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry this year.