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‘Moral values’ remain murky
American public opinion can evade journalists and pollsters, evidenced by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton”s unexpected victory in the New Hampshire primary.
But there also is a disconnect when it comes to the simple phrase “moral values.” News organizations and the voting public don”t see eye to eye on these words, according to research.
“A large majority of those who say moral values are very important in their voting choices are thinking about the characters of the candidates, not their positions on controversial issues,” said a Harris poll released yesterday.
It found that 85 percent of the respondents said “moral values” influenced their voting decisions. Among Republicans, the number was 92 percent, among Democrats, 82 percent, with a stronger divide between conservatives (93 percent) and liberals (71 percent).
When asked to define moral values, 78 percent said they were referring to a candidate”s personal characteristics — honesty, integrity, family values, character, sense of right or wrong, trustworthiness, biblical values — in that order. Thirty percent said moral values meant a candidate”s actual position on issues.
“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,” the survey said.
The findings will be “particularly important” in exit polls this year, the research concluded.
“I agree that we should be careful about bandying around the term ‘moral values.” It is not monolithic,” said Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation.
“But there”s a common-sense view that says there”s a connection between the personal morals of candidates and how they make decisions in political life, or reach conclusions about difficult questions like abortion. Liberals tend to deny this logic,” Mr. Spalding said.
The press also is skittish, he added, about addressing the hard “particulars” of moral reasoning.
Public attention to moral values has varied in intensity, said Joseph R. Marbach, professor of political science at Seton Hall University.
“Looking back at the Clinton White House and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the individual morality of elected leaders came into sharp focus,” he said. “But it was also present after President Nixon resigned, and seen as a factor in Jimmy Carter”s election. He was billed as an upright individual who could restore a sense of morality to the office.”
Mr. Marbach predicted that Democrats may wrestle with moral sensibilities this year.
“It could influence their thirst for ‘change.” They may perceive Barack Obama as having no moral baggage — and that Hillary Clinton still carries that weight from the past,” he said.
The survey of 2,335 adults was conducted Dec. 4 to 14.
By John R. Bolton
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