It’s a familiar journalism strategy during election years: When in doubt, run a poll story.
The leaders of The Washington Post are doing everything that they can do, in terms of social media and online promotions, to trumpet their new 50-state survey of potential American voters. This poll is somewhat different, at this stage in the White House horse race, because it focuses more on the nation’s mood than a single-minded focus on the alleged popularity of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
The big news: America is as divided than ever -- maybe even more divided -- and the vast majority of Americans are pessimistic when it comes to finding a way out of this mess. The exception to this rule: optimistic Americans are part of the coalition that President Barack Obama has favored in his policies and executive orders.
What’s at the heart of this story? Apparently it's a mysterious something called “values.”
However, since we are talking about the Post political desk, it appears that zero effort was made to see if that word “values” might be attached to moral or religious issues. Here is a crucial chunk of the story, near the top:
Americans also say they fear they are being left behind by the cultural changes that are transforming the country. Asked whether the America of today reflects their values more or less than it did in the past, large majorities of registered voters in every state say the country reflects their values less. …
The survey is the largest sample ever undertaken by The Post, which joined with SurveyMonkey and its online polling resources to produce the results. The findings from each state are based on responses from more than 74,000 registered voters during the period of Aug. 9 to Sept. 1. The extensive sample makes it possible not only to compare one state with another but also to examine the attitudes of various parts of the population, based on age, gender, ideology, education and economic standing.
Let's see, what might be missing from that list of key variables? Hint, we are talking about a factor that in recent decades -- roughly post Roe v. Wade -- has proven to be a powerful factor in predicting how Americans will behave at the polls. Might this sea of pessimism about rapid changes in American "values" have something to do with the so-called "values voters"?
Apparently not, but let's keep looking for clues.
It is interesting that the Post notes that Americans who "identify themselves as very liberal are far more pessimistic than those who say they are very conservative." However, when you look at things at the ground level, people in red, conservative, zip codes and states appear to be rather more negative about trends in America than those in blue, or progressive, zones.
Read this block of material carefully and look for the key number -- the size of that coalition of optimists.
The question of whether the America of today reflects people’s own values produced split-screen results. On the one hand, there is broad agreement across the states that the country reflects people’s personal values less today than in the past. On the other hand, it’s clear that not all parts of the population view the country through the same negative lens.
Overall, 72 percent of registered voters nationwide say the America of today reflects their values less than it has in the past, while 26 percent say it reflects their values more than in the past. ...
There are some modest red-blue differences. In five deeply Republican states, at least 80 percent say America reflects their values less than in the past: North Dakota, Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming. The least-negative states are Maryland, California, Oregon, Hawaii and Vermont -- although in no case do more than 33 percent of people express a positive view.
I was struck by the number attached to Americans who are pleased with the nation's direction on "values" issues -- 26 percent. That is very, very close to the size of the growing coalition of religious liberals, atheists, agnostics and "nones" -- the religiously unaffiliated -- that emerged in that famous Pew Forum "Nones on the Rise" study released in 2012.
Is there a connection here?
Truth be told, there is no way to know since the Post survey team appears -- at least in what has been made public so far -- to have done next to nothing to explore how faith, or even specific "values" changes in the culture, have shaped this dark, dark, dark, American mood. However, it should be noted that some of the most pessimistic Americans -- according to the Post survey -- are found on the far left, perhaps over in "feel the Bern" territory.
Nevertheless, I was left pondering some comments by political scientist John C. Green of the University of Akron, back when the "Nones" survey hit the headlines. This is taken from one of my "On Religion" columns:
The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters -- with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.
"It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green. ... "If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties."
Late in the Post story, there is a hint of a connecting thread, for those trying to find a big picture in all of the survey numbers.
I think it's significant that this is attached to a specific word -- "ideology" -- that mainstream journalists often attach to beliefs and issues that, when push come to shove, may be rooted in religion and culture, rather than politics, alone. On an issue such as abortion, some voters -- left and right -- are affected by doctrines, just as much as by political ideologies.
With that in mind, please parse this final chunk of the Post story, which comes near the end:
The biggest differences come when the electorate is viewed through partisan and ideological lines. Among Republicans, 93 percent say the country reflects their values less today than in the past. Democrats, however, split evenly -- 49-to-49 percent. ...
That contrast is even more stark when liberals are compared with conservatives. A majority of self-identified liberals say the country reflects their values more while about 9 in 10 conservatives take the opposite view.
So here is my journalistic question: Why omit questions about faith and culture from a survey of this kind? Here's hoping that the Post team is simply sitting on that chunk of the survey data, planning to release it at a later time.
Once again: If Americans are increasingly pessimistic about American "values," then it might have helped to ask some "values" questions. Surely the Post researchers were not surprised by this familiar trend, this fault line among Americans from coast to coast?