Blue Movie

The "morality gap" is becoming the key variable in American politics

Early in the 1996 election campaign Dick Morris and Mark Penn, two of Bill Clinton's advisers, discovered a polling technique that proved to be one of the best ways of determining whether a voter was more likely to choose Clinton or Bob Dole for President. Respondents were asked five questions, four of which tested attitudes toward sex: Do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong? Do you ever personally look at pornography? Would you look down on someone who had an affair while married? Do you believe sex before marriage is morally wrong? The fifth question was whether religion was very important in the voter's life.

Respondents who took the "liberal" stand on three of the five questions supported Clinton over Dole by a two-to-one ratio; those who took a liberal stand on four or five questions were, not surprisingly, even more likely to support Clinton. The same was true in reverse for those who took a "conservative" stand on three or more of the questions. (Someone taking the liberal position, as pollsters define it, dismisses the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong, admits to looking at pornography, doesn't look down on a married person having an affair, regards sex before marriage as morally acceptable, and views religion as not a very important part of daily life.) According to Morris and Penn, these questions were better vote predictors—and better indicators of partisan inclination—than anything else except party affiliation or the race of the voter (black voters are overwhelmingly Democratic).

It is an axiom of American politics that people vote their pocketbooks, and for seventy years the key political divisions in the United States were indeed economic. The Democratic and Republican Parties were aligned, as a general rule, with different economic interests. Electoral fortunes rose and fell with economic cycles. But over the past several elections a new political configuration has begun to emerge—one that has transformed the composition of the parties and is beginning to alter their relative chances for ballot-box success. What is the force behind this transformation? In a word, sex.

Whereas elections once pitted the party of the working class against the party of Wall Street, they now pit voters who believe in a fixed and universal morality against those who see moral issues, especially sexual ones, as elastic and subject to personal choice. Just after the 2000 election a map showing the percentages of porn movies in the home-video market state by state "bore an eerie resemblance to Tuesday night's results," as Pete du Pont, the former Republican governor of Delaware, put it in a column he wrote for the Wall Street Journal Web site. "Mr. Gore carried the areas with the highest percentages [of sex movies in the video market] ... Mr. Bush carried the area[s] with the lowest percentage." (If nothing else, this correlates with Morris and Penn's finding that Democratic voters generally are more likely to look at pornography.)

The 2000 election revealed remnants of the old New Deal alignments: people making $15,000 to $30,000 voted for Gore over Bush by a 13-point margin, according to Voter News Service (VNS) exit polls, while those making more than $100,000 voted for Bush over Gore by an 11-point margin. But among the 14 percent of voters who attend religious services more than once a week, Bush held a powerful 27-point margin (63 to 36 percent), whereas the 14 percent of voters who never attend services backed Gore by a margin of 29 points (61 to 32 percent). The 23 percent of voters who say that abortion should "always" be legal backed Gore over Bush by an extraordinary 45-point margin (70 to 25 percent); the 13 percent of voters who think abortion should "always" be illegal were even more decisively for Bush, by 52 points (74 to 22 percent). Compare these differences with the ones that used to create the major dividing line between the parties: voters calling themselves "working-class" went for Gore by only 51 to 46 percent, whereas those calling themselves "upper-middle-class" tilted slightly toward Bush, by 54 to 43 percent. Meanwhile, the four percent of voters who consider themselves "upper-class" went for Gore by 56 to 39 percent. In the 2000 election even one's view of Hillary Clinton proved to be a far stronger predictor of one's vote than such historically accurate barometers as social class and education level.

If Red and Blue America are now divided most strongly by sexual and moral values, what does this mean for elections in the years ahead? The 2002 elections, of course, were a great triumph for the Republicans, who gained seats in both the House and the Senate—a rare midterm-election feat for the party that holds the presidency (in fact, this was the first time since 1902 that the Republicans had accomplished it while holding the presidency). But the elections were dominated not by sexual or moral values but, rather, by the one thing that trumps sex: war. As long as a terrorist attack is a serious threat, war talk will dominate elections. But sex, unlike war, does not go away; its return to political center stage is inevitable. And that is decidedly to the Democrats' advantage.

Presented by

Thomas Byrne Edsall

Thomas B. Edsall is the Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. He covered national politics for the Washington Post for 25 years and currently writes a weekly online column for the New York Times. He is the author of The Age of Austerity.

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