The Morals Choice
2004 exit poll, carried out by the National Election
Pool (NEP), asked voters to choose from among seven
issues the one that mattered most in deciding their
vote for president. "Moral values" came in
first by a nose, chosen by 22 percent of the voters,
followed by economy/jobs (20 percent), terrorism (19
percent), Iraq (15 percent), health care (8 percent),
taxes (5 percent), and education (4 percent). The first
place rank of "moral values" is seen by some
as an important source of George W. Bush's increased
vote margin in 2004. Others consider the result more
a fluke in question wording than a finding. Neither
view is correct, based on what we know from many years
of research on survey questions.
First, open questions that require
spontaneous responses, rather than choice among alternatives,
are regarded by some as the gold standard for judging
the importance of issues. This view is not persuasive.
For example, in an experiment published in a 1987
Science magazine article by Jacqueline Scott and
myself, when Americans were asked to name especially
important events of the past half century, they seldom
mentioned the "invention of the computer";
but when that alternative was listed along with the
most frequent open responses (World War II, for instance),
the computer came out on top! Quite likely the invention
of the computer had been outside the frame of reference
for the open question, but was judged to be highly important
once legitimated by being offered as an alternative.
Furthermore, open questions probably
suffer more than closed questions from salience
effects. Forced to come up with a response on their
own, people are apt to be influenced by what they have
heard most recently on television or other news sources,
and Iraq and terrorism have been much more in the news
than the summary phrase "moral values." A
closed set of choices can offer a more even playing
field, provided it does, indeed, include all the main
issues that respondents may wish to consider.
the critical side in evaluating the NEP question, it
is true that the percentages resulting from a list of
alternatives are always a function of the number of
choices and the way they are worded. Results from a
single question can never indicate which issue is "most"
important, and, of course, 22 percent is only slightly
above the percentages shown for several other choices
in the NEP exit poll. Identifying "the most important
issue" is a matter of judgment and should be based
on considering the findings from a number of questions.
There is no quantitative certainty possible as to the
conclusion, and there may well not be any such single
More useful with this exit poll question,
as with all survey questions, is to focus on differences
between key groups. Based on the exit poll data, Bush
voters were much more likely to choose moral values
than Kerry voters: 35 percent to 8 percent. Moreover,
the Los Angeles Times exit poll reported a similar result:
Bush supporters were more than twice as likely as Kerry
supporters to choose "moral/ethical values"
from among twelve alternatives. These differences represent
real findings, worth emphasizing. Whatever "moral
values" means to Bush voters, they saw them as
a great deal more motivating than did Kerry voters.
further objection to including "moral values"
as an alternative in the closed question is that it
does not constitute a "concrete" or "specific"
issue parallel to, say, Iraq or taxes. Whether or not
that is the case-and the single word "Iraq"
is also unspecific-the goal in framing a survey question
is ordinarily to capture words that are meaningful to
people, whether or not all the words are at exactly
the same level of abstraction. To the extent that "moral
values" is meaningful to a substantial number of
Americans in deciding how to vote, it is a legitimate
Of course, it would be informative
if respondents had been probed to find out what they
believed "moral values" to stand for, but
the self-administered exit poll did not do that. We
do know from the Los Angeles Times exit poll that the
alternative "moral/ethical values" was not
only the most frequently chosen at 40 percent, but that
one of the other alternatives was "social issues
such as abortion and gay marriage." The latter
was selected by 15 percent of the sample, and almost
equally by Bush and Kerry voters. Evidently "moral/ethical
values" is regarded as broader and more inclusive
than such specific issues in its appeal to Bush voters.
even if we conclude that "moral values" was
an appropriate alternative to include in a question
about the reasons for Bush's support, and that it reflects
a significant aspect of his support, this does not show
that it contributed to the increase in his popular vote
margin over 2000. Other survey results suggest that
issues falling under the rubric of "moral values"
were about equally important for Bush's support in the
two elections, though we lack additional measures (including
intensity of feelings) that make it possible to estimate
any change in impact between the two elections.
Moral values may have been highly important
to Bush's election in 2004, but not more so than in
2000. Furthermore, the alternative "terrorism,"
which was of course not a possible option in 2000, showed
an even larger difference in ratios than moral values
between Bush and Kerry voters in 2004 (32 percent to
5 percent in the NEP exit poll). It probably made most
of the difference in vote preference between the two
Howard Schuman is a professor and
research scientist emeritus, University of Michigan.
Most of his research has been done through the university's
Survey Research Center. He is the senior author of Questions
& Answers in Attitude Surveys: Experiments on Question
Form, Wording, and Context (1981;1996) and of many other
articles on survey questions.
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