Soon after the 2004 presidential election, the National Election Pool conducted a national exit poll to determine which issues were the most important to voters. Pollsters read from a list that included abortion, same-sex marriage, the environment, health care, and the Iraq war, among others. Based on the responses they got, the National Election Pool survey concluded that religious conservatives—or so-called “values voters”—had helped determine the outcome of that election due to their intense opposition to abortion and marriage equality. The term “values voter” caught on and soon became shorthand for conservative voters who cast their ballots based on their opinions on these two social issues.
But there was a problem with the results of the poll. The list of values issues was limited to abortion and marriage equality, while issues such as poverty and the environment were on a separate list of issues that fell outside the “values” framework. The implication was clear: Voters who were motivated by opposition to the war or tax cuts for the wealthy, who were pro-environment or supported universal health care, must be motivated by something other than their values.
Shortly after the National Election Pool results were published, the Center for American Progress conducted a similar poll, this time asking questions differently and broadening the definition of values to include a wider range of issues. When voters were presented with this broader list of values issues, 64 percent said that “poverty and economic justice” and “greed and materialism” were the most urgent moral problems facing America. Only 27 percent cited abortion and marriage equality.
Since 2004 the notion of what constitutes values issues has expanded. Concerns about economic inequality and fairness, poverty, climate change and the environment, immigration, gay and transgender rights, and health care are now commonly cited as issues grounded in a moral and ethical framework. This is due in part to the tireless work of faith leaders and advocates such as Faith in Public Life, Sojourners, PICO, NETWORK, Interfaith Worker Justice, Progressive Christians Uniting, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the Interfaith Alliance—all of which, along with many others, are addressing social and economic issues through a moral lens.
One difference between this year’s presidential election and the one eight years ago is the broad recognition by candidates, the media, and the public that values encompass a broad range of issues. In our new series on “The New Values Voters,” we examine five—the economy, health care, immigration, the environment, and gay and transgender equality—in order to highlight the activity of people of conscience in these spheres and make clear the ethical and spiritual truths in which these issues are grounded.
Sally Steenland is the Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.