WASHINGTON – Though the airwaves preceding the election were rife with talk of Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden (search), the management of the war in Iraq, job creation and even the so-called legions of angry, young voters — it turns out good old "family values" may have been the key to President Bush’s successful Election Day strategy.
"It was the issue that most of us neglected — the undertold story," said Terry Madonna, director of the Keystone Polls at Franklin Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
"All I know is that we turned out the church," said Phil Burress, president of the Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community Values (search), which made over 850,000 phone calls to Ohio voters encouraging them to go to the polls to oppose a state ballot initiative banning gay marriage (search) and civil unions there. Ohio was one of 11 states that passed anti-gay marriage amendments on Tuesday.
"I said this to the media all along — that the church would turn out on Election Day," Burress said, noting the initiative passed overwhelmingly in his state — Ohio — which ultimately helped Bush to the electoral votes necessary to win the election. Bush also won the popular vote 51 percent to 48 percent.
Exit polls commissioned by the major television networks found that an equal number of voters said "moral values" and the economy were the top issues factored into their voting this year.
Though the exit polling data may not accurately reflect the public's opinion on this issue as news organizations found the exit polls to be wrong as a predictor of who was going to win the presidential election, some of the numbers were so overwhelming they were hard to overlook.
The data showed that 79 percent of voters who chose moral values as their top issue voted for Bush, while 80 percent who chose the economy as their primary concern supported Kerry. These issues surpassed Iraq and terrorism as the top issues.
More interestingly, voters who supported Bush cited trust and clarity and faith as key components to their decision.
In a separate FOX News-Opinion Dynamics poll taken the night of the election, 22 percent of 1,100 Ohio voters surveyed said moral values was their primary issue. Of those who declared that their priority, 90 percent voted for Bush compared to 9 percent for Kerry.
In that same survey, 49 percent said abortions should be legal in most or all cases. An average 70 percent of those surveyed voted for Bush compared to an average 30 percent for Kerry. Likewise, the same poll showed that of the 40 percent of people who opposed any legal recognition of gay marriage, 64 percent voted for Bush compared to 35 percent for Kerry.
Though the total numbers aren’t in on how many Christian conservatives turned out to vote for Bush on Tuesday, analysts say Bush’s strong grip on the issue of morality and faith, and his outreach to religious voters, helped him to win.
"Just look at the exit polls, they indicate that the number one issue was morality and I think that comes as a stunner to the Kerry campaign and for much of blue-state America," said Juan Williams, FOX News analyst and correspondent for National Public Radio, referring to those states that typically vote Democratic and place a lower priority on issues of morality or faith.
Some analysts did not want to downplay the impact of the other top issues on voting, but emphasized that a large number of voters appeared to have been motivated by social concerns, like gay marriage and abortion, and perhaps the emphasis on faith in the Bush campaign all along.
"Even people who believe that the economy was going wrong and thought the war was a mistake voted on the basis of morality and strong leadership," and they went for Bush, said Williams. "They felt they had a common bond of faith and it trumps everything."
This potential for conservative religious outreach was not lost on Bush’s political strategists, who had failed to push the president to grab the full Christian conservative vote in 2000.
Evangelical Protestant Christians, which make up about a quarter of the country’s population and typically support Republicans by greater than 50 percent, were well courted this election and came out hard for Bush on Tuesday, say analysts.
"It was not an accident that Bush rallied in Cincinnati on the last day," said Bill Whalen, a political analyst with the Hoover Institution (search) in California. He said Bush’s last rally took place in conservative Ohio country — and it paid off.
"He showed them he was not just a man of faith, but a man who shares their values," said Whalen.
Whalen and others say that the Bush team kept a direct and indirect emphasis on key issues — like embryonic stem cell research and gay marriage — that reminded voters who was their best bet. The unexpected announcement that conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist may not be returning to the Supreme Court bench also intensified concerns among conservative voters.
"If you look at the argument over gay marriage, it’s amazing how it often popped up during the campaign," noted Williams. He said that while both Bush and Kerry expressed that they were against gay marriage but open to the issue of civil unions, Bush was more convincing that he would protect marriage. Conservative Christians responded.
"I think he sent a core message to people that he would be a moral standard bearer to the nation," said Williams. "The flip side was that some people felt he was beating up on gays to prove the point that he was churchgoing … that’s evident in the blue state/red state divide."
But Madonna and others say that the issue of shared values also seemed to drive voters not necessarily connected with the Christian Evangelical vote, as reflected in the "pink state" of Ohio.
"I think the biggest surprise was that the social concerns best associated with the Evangelicals resonated with people who did not necessarily fit that group," said Peverill Squire, professor of political science at the University of Iowa, a state that went for Al Gore in 2000, but Bush appeared to be winning by several thousand votes on Wednesday morning.
"From a Democratic perspective, they are going to have to identify a candidate who can make people more comfortable on this score than Kerry was able to be," he said.