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Did “Moral Values” and the Gay Marriage Backlash Play a Key Role in Bush’s 2004 Victory?

- December 14, 2007

Journalists (via political pundits)** and political scientists have conflicting accounts of the 2004 elections. Both are very convincing. Let me first start with the journalists’ account. Twenty-two percent of the voters told election pollsters that “moral values” were their top issue (and of that group 80 percent voted for Bush) and thirteen states voted to ban same-sex marriages. The NY Times backs up that account in their article, Same-Sex Marriage Issue Key to Some G.O.P. Races, with interviews with political consultants:

[T]he ballot measures also appear to have acted like magnets for thousands of socially conservative voters in rural and suburban communities who might not otherwise have voted…In Ohio, for instance, political analysts credit the ballot measure with increasing turnout in Republican bastions in the south and west, while also pushing swing voters in the Appalachian region of the southeast toward Mr. Bush.

The (logical) conclusion is that “moral values” and the gay marriage backlash played a key role in Bush’s victory.

Political scientists believe the exact opposite. In an article by Ansolabehere and Stewart III, appropriately titled, Moral values and the gay-marriage backlash did not help Bush, they argue that, the “Marriage referenda mobilized voters on both sides, not just the conservatives, and the net result may have been to John Kerry’s benefit.” Here are the facts from Ansolabehere and Stewart III:

Eleven states—Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan,Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Utah—had measures before the voters that would prohibit gay marriage, and in some cases civil unions. Nine of the 11—all but Michigan and Oregon—had gone for Bush in 2000, and only three—Michigan, Ohio, and Oregon—were battleground states. These are hardly the states one would choose if gay marriage were being used as a wedge issue…Consider the case of Ohio: John Kerry lost Ohio, a state with a ballot initiative and substantial efforts by the Christian right to mobilize voters. But Kerry won a greater percentage of the vote than Gore had (48.9 percent rather than 48.2 percent). Indeed, Bush lost vote share in each of the three battleground states with gay-marriage bans on the ballot, falling from 49.7 percent of the overall two-party vote in these states in 2000 to 49.6 percent in 2004. In contrast, Bush gained vote share in the battleground states that did not vote on gay marriage: in Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Bush’s combined 50.4 percent of the vote represented a one-percentage-point increase since 2000. At the state level, then, marriage referenda seem not to have worked to Bush’s advantage. If we move down to the county level, we find even firmer support for this conclusion. In states with gay marriage on the ballot, Bush gained additional support in the counties he carried in 2000. But in these same states he also lost votes in Democratic counties generally and—perhaps more surprisingly—in evenly divided counties. The overall result is that the polarization of the electorate over gay marriage aided Kerry, not Bush.

The (more logical) conclusion seems to be that “moral values” and the gay-marriage backlash did not help Bush

** It wasn’t all journalist and political pundits. The NY Times articles quotes a political scientist:

John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who has studied religion in politics, said such figures indicated that fervent support for the amendment in conservative areas might have caused turnout to rise by as much as 3 or 4 percent. And that might have helped tip the election to Mr. Bush in this most vital of states. “If you look around rural, Appalachian Ohio, you’ll see there were many counties that Bush won by better than 60 percent of the vote,” Professor Green said. “Those are the areas where you’d see increased turnout because of this issue. And I think that increase was large.”