I don't mean to read too much into this finding, since it may simply have reflected Bush fatigue as well as conservative evangelical mistrust of McCain. Besides, given the breathtaking pace of political and cultural change, when we talk about public attitudes two years ago, we might as well be talking in dog years. Still, extreme social conservatives do not represent the majority, or, I suspect, the future.
They are losing their battle against gay rights, especially among younger people, (and are increasingly marginalized in their view of homosexuality as sinful, or a gateway to bestiality). Support for equal marriage is steadily increasing (according to a recent CNN poll, it's reached a majority). Fifty-seven percent of Americans favor repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Conservatives may be less out of touch on other social issues. The public seems divided on the subject of stem cell research -- but an aging populace and younger people stricken with now incurable diseases, as well as relatives of the ill and elderly, seem unlikely to favor restrictions on lifesaving medical research for long. And there is strong public support for a right to die, obscured by last year's hysteria about imaginary "death panels." (As big government conservatives might recall, congressional intervention in the decision to take Terry Schiavo off life support was opposed by about 70 percent of the public.) Support for reproductive choice has eroded and opponents have succeeded in limiting access to abortion for low-income women, but I suspect that the gains of anti-abortion activists would be reversed quickly if abortion were legally prohibited or became generally unavailable. I dare the extremists to try prohibiting contraception; they might as well continue Christine O'Donnell's campaign against masturbation.
Of course, when the electorate is primarily concerned about the economy, Republicans are unlikely to promote an extremist moral reform agenda. (O'Donnell has already retreated from her own whacky abstinence crusade.) But voters should take seriously the threat posed to core individual freedoms by this increasingly extreme party of alleged freedom fighters. And Democrats might hope that Values Voters' presidential straw poll winner Mike Pence keeps his promise to "not remain silent while great moral values are being waged."
Social conservatives typically describe their quest for religious power quite deceptively as demands for religious rights (as debates over school prayer have demonstrated). So, not surprisingly, Pence framed his crusade to codify conservative Christian sexual and social beliefs as a quest for "religious liberty." A diverse population of voters may disagree.