When the exit poll numbers began leaking out over the Internet on Election Day, Nov. 2, it seemed as though Senator John Kerry would eek out a victory. As the long election night wore on, though, it became clear that the exit polls were unreliable, and George W. Bush was elected to a second term.
A flawed exit polling process wasn’t the only reason for the misleading midday conclusion. Turns out other factors —so-called “sleeper” issues—motivated nearly a quarter of the electorate to go to the polls, presumably to vote Republican.
And what were these issues that seemed to make the difference? While the Iraq war, a sputtering economy and the war on terrorism were deemed important, nearly 22 percent of the electorate (according to those unreliable exit polls) said that a candidate’s stance on social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, were key to their votes.
According to Jack Nagel, Steven F. Goldstone Endowed Term Professor of Political Science and an expert on elections, voting theory and political participation, “We’re less aware of [social issues] in urban, cosmopolitan centers,” otherwise known as home to the mainstream media. “That’s one reason it got under the radar.”
Nagel admits that the social issues to which the conservative movement is tied and the Republican platform supports, are overwhelmingly symbolic. “What the representatives or party does on these particular issues is not much,” he says. “It’s mysterious—why do people care about them?”
The answer, he says, is that abortion and gay marriage are tied to things that matter most to many people—family and religion. “Those are most closely tied to people’s identity. If they seem to be threatened, [people] seem to react very strongly.”
And did the gay marriage bans on the ballots in 11 states motivate conservatives, particularly evangelical Christians, to cast their votes for the Republican ticket? Most likely, says Nagel. “In Ohio, you only needed 150,000 more votes to shift it. It very likely made [a difference].”
Churches seemed to play an unusually large role in this year’s election, as a handful of Catholic bishops and evangelical churches warned their followers from the pulpit that casting a vote for a pro-choice, pro-civil union candidate was sinful. “The Republicans certainly have cultivated the evangelicals…much the same way the Democrats have cultivated the black churches,” he says.
Nagel notes that the Republican anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage platform successfully peeled away some Catholic votes (including Hispanic and Latino) from fellow Catholic Kerry, especially in key swing states. “I think this is a real threat to the Democrats in the decades ahead,” Nagel says. “The working class and Hispanic and Latino voters are much less cosmopolitan. They have stayed more Democratic … because they were discriminated against on the race issue when that was a separate issue out there. The Republicans have moved away from playing the race card; they can appeal to those voters on religious and cultural [grounds].”
Nagel says that such social issues are actually populist at their core, and used to be associated with what was once the solid base of the Democratic party—working and middle class people from the southeast and farm states. But appealing to anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage voters enables Republicans to win despite economic policies that don’t benefit working people, he adds.
Social issues have been volleyed around the political spectrum for 40 years, and will likely be key in future races.
In the meantime, Nagel expects Republican Senator Arlen Specter to struggle with his beliefs in the face of conservative pressure. Specter, a pro-choice politician, warned after the election that the newly reelected Bush should not expect Supreme Court nominees who would overturn abortion rights to be confirmed. Specter is expected to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee next year.
“It’s going to really put Specter in a difficult position,” says Nagel. “I can see it as being difficult to accept his Judiciary Chair on this.”
Originally published on November 18, 2004