The new conventional wisdom is on the move! It looks like the standard interpretation of Tuesday's results is being wildly overplayed -- "moral values" and gay marriage did not drive the outcome nearly as much as some people think.
Consider the evidence:
-As UVA's Paul Freedman points out in Slate, gay marriage bans that were on the ballot did not cause substantial increases in those states when compared to other states, nor did it substantially increase Bush's vote total compared with 2000 in those states. And when controlling for a state's past Bush vote, "a 10-point increase in the percentage of voters citing terrorism as the most important problem translates into a 3-point Bush gain. A 10-point increase in morality voters, on the other hand, has no effect. Nor does putting an anti-gay-marriage measure on the ballot."
-David Brooks argues convincingly along the same lines today. "As Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center points out," he writes, "there was no disproportionate surge in the evangelical vote this year. Evangelicals made up the same share of the electorate this year as they did in 2000. There was no increase in the percentage of voters who are pro-life. Sixteen percent of voters said abortions should be illegal in all circumstances. There was no increase in the percentage of voters who say they pray daily." Instead, he points out that "Bush did better this year than he did in 2000 in 45 out of the 50 states," which he attributes to his overall job approval and a general trend toward conservatism.
-Finally, ABC polling director Gary Langer makes a strong case that the "moral values" exit poll question was highly misleading (the controversy is also the subject of a news article today). The poll asked voters which issue was most important in their decision: taxes, education, Iraq, terrorism, economy/jobs, moral values or health care. Langer writes that "Six of these are concrete, specific issues. The seventh, moral values, is not, and its presence on the list produced a misleading result. How do we know? Pre-election polls consistently found that voters were most concerned about three issues: Iraq, the economy and terrorism. When telephone surveys asked an open-ended issues question (impossible on an exit poll), answers that could sensibly be categorized as moral values were in the low single digits. In the exit poll, they drew 22 percent." He attributes the increase to the imprecision of the phrase and its resonance with conservatives. (Disclaimer: Values, of course, mattered in the election, but their importance was exaggerated by a poorly worded question.)
Unfortunately, this may be too little, too late -- the talking head consensus on the "message" of this election has already sent Democrats into a post-election frenzy, and we'll be hearing simplistic stories about Bush winning because of the gay marriage issue for the next 30 years. Thanks press corps!
PS For a more measured take on what happened, I recommend Ron Brownstein's exit poll analysis as a useful starting point.
Update: See also Phillip Klinkner in The New Republic Online. He finds that Bush's performance with people who attend church once per week or more was the same as 2000, but "Bush improved his performance with voters at the upper end of the income ladder.... In fact, Bush's gains among the wealthiest Americans account for a good chunk of his popular-vote margin of victory."