Poll: Character of Candidates is Key to Voters

An overwhelming 85 percent of likely voters say “moral values” are important when deciding which candidate to vote for, and 46 percent say “moral values” are very important, according to a Harris poll released January 9.

The poll reveals that when voters apply the term “moral values” to political candidates, they are principally concerned about character qualities like honesty and integrity, not positions on social issues.

The Harris article releasing the poll results asserts that journalists “often use the phrase 'moral values' to mean the issues of importance to some conservatives and members of the 'Christian Right', issues such as abortion, gay rights, same-sex marriage and stem cell research. In fact, when the public uses the phrase, only a few people are referring to these issues.”  However, the poll provides no data to support its assertion that journalists misunderstand the public's use of “moral values.” 

CMI could find only one media story, by the conservative Washington Times, reporting on the poll.

In its Web article releasing the poll results, Harris, a liberal polling company, spins the data to suggest that the media overstate the importance of “Christian Right” issues like abortion and same-sex marriage: 

These findings show that pollsters, journalists and commentators must be very careful not to assume that voters who feel strongly about “moral values” are primarily concerned with issues such as abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage, stem cell research, gun control or any of the other issues often associated with the Christian Right or the Conservative base of the Republican party.

This will be particularly important in the final pre-election polls and exit polls. In 2004 many commentators assumed wrongly that voters who said moral values influenced their votes were referring to these issues, and as a result some pundits greatly overestimated their impact on the election. [emphasis in original]

Contrary to the spin, the poll data should not be interpreted to suggest that few voters are concerned about social issues.  The poll asked its questions about “moral values” in the context of selecting a political candidate, not in determining which moral issues are important to the electorate.

Brian Fitzpatrick is senior editor at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the MediaResearchCenter.