Issues, Issues

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Anyone interested in assessing the importance of religion in the campaign needs to keep in mind the country’s evolving issues agenda. Last election, you’ll recall, “Moral Values” topped the list in the exit polls, which set the stage for the current Democratic interest in pumping up religious outreach. To be sure, some journalistic snoots were cocked regarding the actual meaning of the “Moral Values” preference, especially since only about a quarter of the voting public chose it. But it did count for something, particularly among the important evangelical Protestant Republican base. (For an analysis of this subject by John Green and me, see here.)
In this week’s ABC/Washington Post poll (pp. 13-14), “Morals/Family Values” ranks seventh as the most important issue issue for people, and hasn’t moved out of the 2-3 percent range for a year. But it’s not only the decreased salience of this issue that points to decreased salience “values voting” in this election cycle. The war in Iraq, terrorism, and ethics/corruption have all declined. The most important issue by far is the economy, and the economy is not understood as a “values” issue in the way the former are. Religious voting blocs will continue to behave in much the same way they always have, but the issues that have motivated them in the past–especially the evangelical “values voters”–simply don’t have the oomph they had four years ago. Doubtless the smart guys in the GOP know this, and have determined that they’ve got to find a way to persuade voters that they can handle economic issues better than the other side. Whitch tends to push Mitt Romney to the head of the vice presidential line.