WASHINGTON – This presidential election has been described by many as one in which morality (search) mattered most to voters. But that perception may be driven at least partially by how pollsters asked voters about their priority issues.
Whether voters named "moral values" their key issue partly depended on whether that subject was included in a list of choices provided by pollsters, according to a Pew Research Center analysis released Thursday.
When "moral values" was included in poll questions, it was named more often than any other issue. But when voters were just asked to name the issue most important in their vote for president — without being given a list of answers — moral values trailed the war in Iraq and the economy, according to the Pew survey.
"The advantage of the open-ended question is it tells you what's at the top of mind for voters - what they're thinking," said Cliff Zukin, a veteran pollster and professor of public policy at Rutgers University. "Much too much has been made of the moral values answer."
Many Christian conservatives have sought to portray the election as validation for their emphasis on morality and the reason for President Bush's (search) re-election. While it's true voters who picked Bush were more apt to cite morality as the reason, political analyst Thomas Mann said it's too simplistic to say that issue determined the winner.
"It's a big mistake to say it's all a function of religious conservatives being motivated," said Mann, of the Brookings Institution. But, he added, "To say it wasn't a factor is just as foolish."
In exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International, "moral values" was one of seven items in a question that asked, "Which one issue mattered most in deciding how you voted for president." The other issues were taxes, education, Iraq, terrorism, economy/jobs, and health care.
Twenty-two percent chose "moral values," followed by the economy (20 percent), terrorism (19 percent) and Iraq (15 percent), according to the polls, which surveyed more than 13,600 voters and were conducted for The Associated Press and the major television networks.
The Pew Research Center polled 1,209 voters who said they cast ballots in the 2004 presidential election. When those voters were given a list, "moral values" was the most popular choice at 27 percent, followed by Iraq at 22 percent and the economy at 21 percent.
But when they were asked an open-ended question about the top issue, Iraq and the economy moved past moral values. Iraq was picked by 27 percent, the economy by 14 percent and moral values tied with terrorism at 9 percent.
"Moral values was an element in the Bush formula, but probably not the driving one," said Lee Miringoff, president of the National Council of Public Polls.
The Pew poll found that voters' reasons for picking "moral values" varies. Just over four in 10 of those who picked "moral values" from the list mentioned social issues like gay marriage (search) and abortion, but others talked about qualities like religion, helping the poor, and candidates' honesty and strength of leadership.
"We did not see any indication that social conservative issues like abortion, gay rights and stem cell research were anywhere near as important as the economy and Iraq," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "'Moral values' is a phrase that's very attractive to people."
The Pew survey was taken Nov. 5-8 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.