Moral values topped the list of issues voters were most concerned about when they went to the polls on Election Day, with Catholics, evangelicals, blacks and Hispanics joining an ad hoc coalition that re-elected President Bush by 3.5 million votes.
A national exit poll of 13,531 voters found 22 percent cited moral values as the "most important issue," with the economy and jobs second at 20 percent and terrorism at 19 percent, according to a joint survey by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. Iraq came in fourth at 15 percent.
Moral issues were highlighted by ballot measures in 11 states to effectively prohibit same-sex "marriage." Voters approved all the measures by solid majorities, ranging from 57 percent in Oregon to 86 percent in Mississippi -- and 62 percent in the key state of Ohio.
"The overwhelming support that Americans gave to marriage and family issues and the candidates who supported them showed that this is the 'year of the values voter,'" said Gary Bauer, president of American Values and a former presidential candidate.
"For too long, liberal political pundits have been telling us that issues like marriage and life divide us as a people. But it's clear that while those issues may be controversial, they are not divisive because people reach across such boundaries as party, economic status and ethnic group to join together to support and protect the American family," Mr. Bauer said.
For months on the campaign trail, the president drew the most enthusiastic applause from supporters when he talked about moral values: The "culture of life," a phrase borrowed from Pope John Paul II; the sanctity of marriage; the importance of family; and especially his signing of the partial-birth-abortion ban.
At each stop, he delivered a variation of the lines he said in Dallas during his final campaign stop on Monday: "Over the next four years, I'll continue to stand for the values that are important to our nation. I stand for marriage and family, which are the foundations of our society. I stand for a culture of life in which every person matters and every being counts," the president said.
Mr. Bush also highlighted the perception in Middle America that Democrats represent the values of the Hollywood elite by referring to a July fund-raiser in New York City, where celebrities who called the president a "liar" and a "thug" were praised by Sen. John Kerry as "the heart and soul of our country."
"Most of our families don't look to Hollywood as a source of values," Mr. Bush told audiences during his final campaign swing.
The Christian Defense Coalition yesterday pointed to a strong evangelical and pro-life voter turnout as a key to the president's victory.
"It is clear one of the major factors in this presidential race was the strong turnout of the faith and pro-life communities," said the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the coalition. "Moral issues played a major role across the country as witnessed by the fact that all 11 traditional-marriage voter initiatives passed," he said, referring to homosexual "marriage" bans in states from the Deep South to North Dakota.
A surprisingly strong bloc of Catholics helped Mr. Bush defeat the first Catholic presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy. According to exit polls, Catholics were 27 percent of the electorate and 51 percent went for the Methodist president -- a four percentage point increase in Mr. Bush's Catholic support compared with 2000. The most observant Catholics -- those who attend church weekly -- supported the president 55 percent to 44 percent.
Roman Catholic leaders and lay activists had criticized Mr. Kerry for his pro-choice stance and his vote against the partial-birth-abortion ban.
On Sunday, Northern Virginia Catholics received in their church bulletins an insert from Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde that declared: "No Catholic can claim to be a faithful member of the Church while advocating for, or actively supporting, direct attacks on innocent human life."
Austin Ruse, president of the Culture of Life Foundation and a Roman Catholic, called Mr. Kerry "a gift of God to the Catholic Church in 2004."
The election "drew lines, it energized Catholics, it made distinctions of what is important and what is less important, and it energized faithful pew-sitters and emboldened a number of bishops," Mr. Ruse said.
Evangelical Christians handed the White House an overwhelming mandate against abortion, same-sex "marriage" and other issues in the culture wars.
"This election demonstrates that Democratic Party leaders have moved far away from the moral consensus in America," said the Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council. "If they are to reclaim political relevancy, they will need to re-examine their positions on all the major moral issues including the sanctity of human life, the sanctity of marriage and the public acknowledgment of God."
Conservatives credited moral issues with boosting Mr. Bush's tally among black and Hispanic voters. The president's share of the Hispanic vote increased from 31 percent in 2000 to 44 percent this year. The shift in the black vote was smaller -- from 9 percent four years ago to 11 percent in 2004 -- but may have proved decisive in Ohio, the state that ultimately tipped the election to Mr. Bush.
Sixteen percent of Ohio blacks -- about 90,000 voters -- cast their ballots for Mr. Bush, said Matt Daniels, president of Alliance For Marriage, which supported that state's ballot referendum to prohibit same-sex "marriage." If Mr. Bush's black supporters had instead voted for Mr. Kerry, the Democrat would have won Ohio by 40,000, Mr. Daniels said.
"While the same-sex marriage issue was not the sole reason Bush won these 90,000 votes, there is strong evidence to suggest that it played a major role in Bush's increased appeal with African-American voters in Ohio -- and elsewhere," he said.
Cheryl Wetzstein contributed to this report.