It’s time to set the wayback (actually, it’s WABAC) machine for the year 2003, when editors of The Atlantic Monthly published one of the most famous anecdotal ledes in the recent history of American politics.
The article was called “Blue Movie: The “morality gap” is becoming the key variable in American politics” and the essay opened like this:
Early in the 1996 election campaign Dick Morris and Mark Penn, two of Bill Clinton’s advisers, discovered a polling technique that proved to be one of the best ways of determining whether a voter was more likely to choose Clinton or Bob Dole for President. Respondents were asked five questions, four of which tested attitudes toward sex: Do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong? Do you ever personally look at pornography? Would you look down on someone who had an affair while married? Do you believe sex before marriage is morally wrong? The fifth question was whether religion was very important in the voter’s life.
Respondents who took the “liberal” stand on three of the five questions supported Clinton over Dole by a two-to-one ratio; those who took a liberal stand on four or five questions were, not surprisingly, even more likely to support Clinton. The same was true in reverse for those who took a “conservative” stand on three or more of the questions. (Someone taking the liberal position, as pollsters define it, dismisses the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong, admits to looking at pornography, doesn’t look down on a married person having an affair, regards sex before marriage as morally acceptable, and views religion as not a very important part of daily life.) According to Morris and Penn, these questions were better vote predictors — and better indicators of partisan inclination — than anything else except party affiliation or the race of the voter. …
Later on, of course, as the red zip code vs. blue zip code warfare became more refined, pollsters began to focus on a more refined research angle — which became known as “The Pew Gap.” The basic truth: The best way to predict the behavior of white voters — irregardless of their religious traditions — was to find out how often they attended worship services. The more often they were in a religious sanctuary, the more likely they were to vote for culturally conservative candidates (usually Republicans, in recent decades).
In other words, a person’s religious beliefs and practice matter, when it comes time to predict her or his actions in a voting booth.
This brings me to a recent story in The Washington Post, which ran under this headline: “Democrats seek to reshape midterm electorate along lines of a presidential year.” The lede is perfectly obvious, to anyone who lives here in Beltway-land or reads news produced by the scribes who gather here:
Democrats have a problem and everyone knows it. President Obama calls it a “congenital disease.” If they can’t control it, Obama could spend the final years of his presidency battling not only a Republican House but also a Republican Senate.
Democrats don’t vote in midterm elections. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the core of the Democratic coalition is made up of many people who turn out to vote only in presidential elections. The Republican coalition — older and whiter — suffers less from midterm falloff.
So what is wrong with this story? What is the crucial element that the Post team totally ignored?