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.

In a 1998 paper on American sexual behavior Tom W. Smith, the director of the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center, at the University of Chicago, found that among people born before 1910, 61 percent of the men and just 12 percent of the women reported having had sex before marriage. These percentages have grown through the generations, much more dramatically among women than among men. Ninety percent of the men born in the 1940s had sex before marriage, as did 63 percent of the women. And of the women born since 1952, only 20 percent reported having been virgins when they married. Many women—and many men, too—cherish the rights that fall under the post-1960s rubric of autonomy and personal freedom, strongly valuing their sexual and reproductive independence. They are willing to vote based on this cluster of issues—and when they do, they vote Democratic.

The demographic reality is that as currently constituted, liberal Blue America is growing and conservative Red America is in decline. Take church attendance. Exit polls in 2000 showed that the more often a voter attended religious services, the more likely he or she would be to cast a ballot for the Republican Party. But long-range trends in religiosity (the term sociologists use for "depth or intensity of religiousness"), as measured by the National Election Studies polling series on church attendance, do not favor the Republicans. From 1972 to 2000 the proportion of voters who said they attended services every week dropped from 38 to 25 percent. The proportion who said they went "almost" every week remained nearly constant at 11 to 12 percent, and the proportion who attended "once or twice a month" rose only slightly, from 12 percent to 16 percent. The proportion who attended just "a few times a year" dropped from 30 to 16 percent. The one group that has grown dramatically consists of those who never go to church or synagogue. This group, which has become a mainstay of liberal politics, made up just 11 percent of the population in 1972 but 33 percent in 2000.

Thus if the Republican Party hopes to build on its 2002 gains, it must continue to mute its social conservatism when speaking to the public. President Bush did just that at a press conference right after the November election, when he pointedly ignored a question about whether social conservatives should "push for new restrictions on abortion," instead focusing on issues of national security. In that press conference he used the words "war," "threat," "terror," "terrorism," "terrorists," and "nuclear" a total of forty-five times.

From the archives:

"The Battle for Saliency" (October 1992)
"Politicians have one thing in common with voters: they don't want to think about the abortion issue. They want to demobilize the debate and get the issue off the agenda. That is especially true for Republicans." By William Schneider

More on abortion in The Atlantic Monthly.

Many House and Senate Republicans, however, are eager to revive a conservative social agenda. In order to keep his party ascendant Bush will have to hold in check both the Senate conservatives, who have already promised to bring to the floor legislation banning so-called partial-birth abortion, and the House majority leader Tom DeLay, an adamant opponent of abortion rights. (Currently, congressional conservatives are seriously promoting at least three anti-abortion bills.) Bush and his strategists are fully aware that positioning the Republican Party as the party of sexual repression would be devastating to its electoral prospects—but the conservative right is not likely to accede to further delay of its agenda after years of waiting for action under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. For this reason judicial appointments will also present a major challenge for Bush, because social conservatives consider the federal judiciary to be the prime vehicle for reversing the sexual revolution.

As long as al Qaeda, Iraq, and North Korea dominate the news, the Republicans will be able to maintain their slight advantage. But should war fade into the background, or as soon as emboldened congressional Republicans begin moving to restrict Americans' sexual autonomy, the currently weakened Democratic Party will be positioned to push back with the kind of vitality that propelled Bill Clinton to victory in 1992 and 1996. Lest 1996 seem like ancient history to Republicans, they should recall that more-recent elections demonstrated the power of the electorate's new morality quite vividly: in both 1998 and 2000 (the former a midterm election, when the presidential party traditionally loses ground in Congress) the Democrats gained seats in the House. And these gains came despite—and perhaps because of (insofar as they represented a reaction against the Republican-led drive to impeach Bill Clinton)—their following soon after the most explicit sex scandal in the history of the Oval Office.