BOB GARFIELD: So why have so many in the media come to proclaim that the presidential election turned on a vast gulf in moral values between red states and blue? The answer is to be found in exit polls where voters were asked what one issue most influenced the way they cast their ballots. They were given seven options: taxes, education, Iraq, health care, terrorism, the economy, and the now famous moral values, which netted the highest response at 22 percent. But the Pew Center for the People and the Press which also tracks voting patterns had doubts about including the option moral values in that election night questionnaire. Andrew Kohut is Pew's director.
ANDREW KOHUT: If you had put it along with a list of other things like Rising Anti-Americanism and other grab bags, Foreign Policy Problems, it would be more of an apples to apples comparison.
BOB GARFIELD: And so Pew went back a few days later to 1200 voters with the same multiple choice questionnaire. Sure enough, it got approximately the same results. But then, Kohut says, Pew polled a similar sample group in an open-ended survey without any options to choose from.
ANDREW KOHUT: We said to them: What issues were on your mind when you were casting a ballot a few days ago? And we got quite different answers. Only 9 percent volunteered moral values. Another 5 percent mentioned social issues such as homosexuality or abortion. And I think even the 9 percent was an overstatement, because this buzz word phrase moral values was used so frequently in the days following the election, when our polling was done. When we asked people who made the choice moral values in a followup question, what did you mean -- they were talking about the candidates' religious beliefs or stem cell research or homosexuality -- moral values is code. You shouldn't put code in questions.
BOB GARFIELD: So it wasn't just a question of triggering a response from suggestible people. It was a question of pressing a hot button that was designed to generate a certain response.
ANDREW KOHUT: Precisely. If you had asked a question that dealt with specific issues, you would not get that kind of response. There were other big drivers of the vote that are far more important than moral values. It was Iraq, it was the economy, it was terrorism, it was health care, and to a much lesser extent it was issues such as stem cell research or gay marriage or abortion.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, that's a key, because you at Pew, on an ongoing basis, keep your finger on the pulse of the American electorate, and you're saying that Americans' embracing of moral values hasn't dramatically changed over the years.
ANDREW KOHUT: That's right. We saw the same attitudes toward abortion in the exit poll on this election as we saw four years ago and eight years ago, essentially. This was an electorate that was not more church-going than the electorate four years ago and eight years ago. It was an electorate that took a moderate view on gay couples. But the press latched on to the story. We saw the same thing back in 1994, when the Republicans surprisingly took control of the Congress after 40 years. The press wrote: This is the Republican revolution. Well, that was bunk. What the exit polls showed was that there was discontent with the way the Democrats were controlling Washington -- not an ideological shift. And in this election, it's more about a public being comfortable with Bush's leadership rather than risking a vote for Kerry.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, we've seen a few op-ed pieces re-thinking this assumption that there was this great moral gulf, and yet myths are very difficult to explode. Do you think in the end, when this campaign is examined, that we'll ever get away from the notion that this was the morality election?
ANDREW KOHUT: The media writes the first draft of history. I think what the actual historians say will probably be quite a bit different. The problem these days is we only rely on one exit poll, unlike the 1980s when each of the networks would do their own exit polls, and we'd have different takes on questions, and that really runs the risk that the error inherent on one survey is going to have such an overwhelming impact on the way we look at the electorate. And hopefully, in the future, the resources will be available to have different takes and different kinds of research examinations that might provide some perspective on findings like this.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Andy, as always, thanks very much.
ANDREW KOHUT: You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Andrew Kohut is director of the Pew Center for the People and the Press.