The meaning of exit polls

061030coversmRemember the media narrative from the 2004 election? To explain how the country could have possibly elected George W. Bush for a second term, we were told that throngs of homophobic, Red America values-voters surged to the polls. Never mind that it wasn't true. Bush got more evangelical voters than Republicans traditionally had, but he got more of all sorts of groups. The narrative was constructed out of one exit poll question, which asked voters what issues had motivated them. They were given options including "moral values." It wasn't specific about which moral values motivated the voter. Roughly the same percentage of voters had answered in previous elections that moral values were their biggest concern but it was 2004 that they were noticed.

I was thinking about this as I read a recent Politico story that dealt with exit poll results and religion:

Despite Barack Obama's aggressive courting of white weekly churchgoers, exit polls showed that just 29 percent of them voted for him this year, the same percentage that Democrats John Kerry and Al Gore won in the previous two presidential elections.

Obama's inability to make inroads with highly religious whites -- who made up about 30 percent of the electorate -- came despite a favorable political landscape, with cultural issues eclipsed by the economy, and an aggressive attempt by Democrats to court the group over the past four years.

House Democrats fashioned a working group on faith, and Obama offered a much heralded address on faith in July 2006. In this year's primary, Democrats held two candidate discussions dedicated to faith and values.

The article is fair, speaking with anonymous Obama staffers who denied that they tried to reach out to the group as well as people who disagree. One aspect to this story that is surprising isn't just that Obama failed to get these voters. I read this week in an opinion piece for Newsweek that more than 4 million Americans who go to church more than once a week and voted in 2004 stayed home in 2008. They represented half the margin between Obama and McCain.

But what caught me was what was missing from this year's exit polls. And what was missing was the "moral values" question. Here are the exit poll results for 2008. And here's a Guardian article that deals with the question about which issues concerned voters:

Six in 10 voters picked the economy as the most important issue facing the nation. None of the four other issues listed by exit pollsters -- energy, war in Iraq, terrorism and health care -- was chosen by more than one in 10 people.

Isn't it bizarre that "moral issues" would be included in previous elections' exit polls but not this year's? How was this decided? And why? And isn't this a great example of how media outlets can shape the news by picking which questions to ask? Exit polls are conducted at the behest of media outlets.

Here's the thing -- the 2004 question was ineptly worded. It could mean everything or nothing. What voter isn't motivated by moral values? What does that mean? And yet this question had quite a few ramifications -- it got Democrats to wake up about their God Gap problem and it got media outlets concerned about religion reporting. Presumably Democrats have learned a few lessons about reaching out to various types of religious voters but will media outlets decide that they don't need to worry about religion anymore? Will they decide that only certain religious adherents matter? And will that decision be based on subjective feelings or objective research?

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