Voters and values in the 2004 election

Gary Langer, Jon Cohen

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


A poorly devised exit poll question undermined meaningful analysis of voters' concerns in the 2004 presidential election. Twenty-two percent of voters picked "moral values" from a list of "issues" describing what mattered most in their vote, more than selected any other item. Various commentators have misinterpreted this single data point to conclude that moral values are an ascendant political issue and to credit conservative Christian groups with turning George W. Bush's popular vote defeat in 2000 into his three million-vote margin of victory in 2004. We suggest, rather, that while morals and values are critical in informing political judgments, they represent personal characteristics and ill-defined policy preferences far more than any discrete political issue. First by conflating morals and values and then by further conflating characteristics and issues, the exit poll's "issues" list distorted our understanding of the 2004 election. In this article, we examine the flaws in the 2004 National Election Pool exit poll's "most important issue" question and explore the presumed rising electoral importance of moral values and the conservative Christians who overwhelmingly selected this item. Using national exit poll data from 1980 through 2004 and other national surveys, we find that the moral values item on the issues list cannot properly be viewed as a discrete issue or set of closely related issues; that its importance to voters has not grown over time; and that when controlled for other variables, it ranks low on the issues list in predicting 2004 vote choices. The aggregated exit poll data also show that the voting behavior of conservative Christians is relatively stable over time, and these voters were not primarily responsible for Bush's improvement in 2004 over 2000.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)744-759
Number of pages16
JournalPublic Opinion Quarterly
Issue number5 SPEC. ISS.
StatePublished - 2005
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences (all)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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