The Gay Marriage Myth
Terrorism, not values, drove Bush's re-election.
Did "moral values"—in particular, the anti-gay marriage measures on ballots in 11 states this week—drive President Bush's re-election? That's the early conventional wisdom as Democrats begin soul-searching and finger-pointing. These measures are alleged to have drawn Christian conservatives to the polls, many of whom failed to vote last time. The theory is intriguing, but the data don't support it. Gay marriage and values didn't decide this election. Terrorism did.
The morality theory rests on three claims. The first is that gay-marriage bans led to higher turnout, chiefly among Christian conservatives. The second is that Bush performed especially well where gay marriage was on the ballot. The third is that in general, moral issues decided the election.
The evidence that having a gay-marriage ban on the ballot increased voter turnout is spotty. Marriage-ban states did see higher turnout than states without such measures. They also saw higher increases in turnout compared with four years ago. But these differences are relatively small. Based on preliminary turnout estimates, 59.5 percent of the eligible voting population turned out in marriage-ban states, whereas 59.1 percent turned out elsewhere. This is a microscopic gap when compared to other factors. For example, turnout in battleground states was more than 7.5 points higher than it was in less-competitive states, and it increased much more over 2000 as well.
It's true that states with bans on the ballot voted for Bush at higher rates than other states. His vote share averaged 7 points higher in gay-marriage-banning states than in other states (57.9 vs. 50.9). But four years ago, when same-sex marriage was but a twinkle in the eye of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Bush's vote share was 7.3 points higher in these same states than in other states. In other words, by a statistically insignificant margin, putting gay marriage on the ballot actually reduced the degree to which Bush's vote share in the affected states exceeded his vote share elsewhere.
Why did states with gay-marriage ballot measures vote so heavily for Bush? Because such measures don't appear on state ballots randomly. Opponents of gay marriage concentrate their efforts in states that are most hospitable to a ban and are most likely to vote for Bush even without such a ballot measure. A state's history of voting for Bush is more likely to lead to an anti-gay-marriage measure on that state's ballot than the other way around.
Much has been made of the fact that "moral values" topped the list of voters' concerns, mentioned by more than a fifth (22 percent) of all exit-poll respondents as the "most important issue" of the election. It's true that by four percentage points, people in states where gay marriage was on the ballot were more likely than people elsewhere to mention moral issues as a top priority (25.0 vs. 20.9 percent). But again, the causality is unclear. Did people in these states mention moral issues because gay marriage was on the ballot? Or was it on the ballot in places where people were already more likely to be concerned about morality?
More to the point, the morality gap didn't decide the election. Voters who cited moral issues as most important did give their votes overwhelmingly to Bush (80 percent to 18 percent), and states where voters saw moral issues as important were more likely to be red ones. But these differences were no greater in 2004 than in 2000. If you're trying to explain why the president's vote share in 2004 is bigger than his vote share in 2000, values don't help.
If the morality gap doesn't explain Bush's re-election, what does? A good part of the answer lies in the terrorism gap. Nationally, 49 percent of voters said they trusted Bush but not Kerry to handle terrorism; only 31 percent trusted Kerry but not Bush. This 18-point gap is particularly significant in that terrorism is strongly tied to vote choice: 99 percent of those who trusted only Kerry on the issue voted for him, and 97 percent of those who trusted only Bush voted for him. Terrorism was cited by 19 percent of voters as the most important issue, and these citizens gave their votes to the president by an even larger margin than morality voters: 86 percent for Bush, 14 percent for Kerry.
These differences hold up at the state level even when each state's past Bush vote is taken into account. When you control for that variable, 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. So, if you want to understand why Bush was re-elected, stop obsessing about the morality gap and start looking at the terrorism gap.
Paul Freedman, associate professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, has recently completed a book on television campaign advertising.
Photograph on Slate's Table of Contents of gay wedding by Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty Images.