Gary Langer’s Op-Ed piece in the NYT points to the now-infamous exit poll question about “moral values” as creating a lot of incorrect assumptions about what Tuesday’s vote means.

The news media has made much of the finding that a fifth of voters picked “moral values” as the most important issue in deciding their vote – as many as cited terrorism or the economy. The conclusion: moral values are ascendant as a political issue.

The reporting accurately represents the exit poll data, but not reality. While morals and values are critical in informing political judgments, they represent personal characteristics far more than a discrete political issue. Conflating the two distorts the story of Tuesday’s election.

This distortion comes from a question in the exit poll, co-sponsored by the national television networks and The Associated Press, that asked voters what was the most important issue in their decision: taxes, education, Iraq, terrorism, economy/jobs, moral values or health care. Six of these are concrete, specific issues. The seventh, moral values, is not, and its presence on the list produced a misleading result.

How do we know? Pre-election polls consistently found that voters were most concerned about three issues: Iraq, the economy and terrorism. When telephone surveys asked an open-ended issues question (impossible on an exit poll), answers that could sensibly be categorized as moral values were in the low single digits. In the exit poll, they drew 22 percent.

Why the jump? One reason is that the phrase means different things to people. Moral values is a grab bag; it may appeal to people who oppose abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research but, because it’s so broadly defined, it pulls in others as well. Fifteen percent of non-churchgoers picked it, as did 12 percent of liberals.

…Moral values, moreover, is a loaded phrase, something polls should avoid. (Imagine if “patriotism” were on the list.) It resonates among conservatives and religious Americans. While 22 percent of all voters marked moral values as their top issue, 64 percent of religious conservatives checked it. And among people who said they were mainly interested in a candidate with strong religious faith (just 8 percent, in a far more balanced list of candidate attributes), 61 percent checked moral values as their top issue. So did 42 percent of people who go to church more than once a week, 41 percent of evangelical white Christians and 37 percent of conservatives.

Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding