- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 9, 2004

“There are lies,” Mark Twain wrote, “damn lies, and statistics.” This year, he might have added early “exit polls.” But, as disconnected as these polls seemed from the results of the election, their data are already serving as meat for strategists, journalists and blog savants, scuttling over the body like ravenous insects.

Within a day, we knew that the exit polls revealed the No. 1 issue with voters: “moral values.” And, of those who gave moral values top priority, 79 percent voted for the president. We also know that 55 percent of Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly gave Mr. Bush their vote — in Ohio and Florida this number was even higher: 65 percent to 66 percent. The correlation is almost unavoidable: Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly are a key component of these “values voters.”

While this may have come as a surprise morsel to the devouring pundits, Catholic-vote analysts in the Republican Party actually had this concern crystallized for them a few months ago. In focus groups of undecided Catholics in a key battleground state, the participants raised the broad but insistent concern that America was in moral decline. When asked what a president could do to reverse this trend, the consensus answered, “provide strong moral leadership.” When asked if Mr. Bush set a good moral example, every single participant answered “yes.”

These were the classic “swing” Catholic voters — many of them former Democrats — most now considering themselves independents, slowly migrating toward the Republican Party. These were the “targets” of both campaigns, and the president’s own character had already brought them into his “sights.” Sen. John Kerry’s four weeks of posing for holy cards and hunting pix could not match the president’s mark on the issues.

Mr. Kerry said he opposed same-sex marriage but his vote against the Defense of Marriage Act made this position suspiciously nuanced. When Mr. Kerry said he would leave the issue to the states, it didn’t help him that in his own state of Massachusetts, that meant gay marriage was good to go there and maybe elsewhere. On this, the response was swift and sure. By large majorities, voters in 11 states approved constitutional amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman, and in several cases, prohibiting civil unions. Catholics joined this juggernaut.

On abortion, Mr. Kerry’s position was decidedly non-nuanced: He aimed to protect abortion rights and to make sure that Roe v. Wade remained scripture. His own public record required this, and any Catholic who bothered to inquire discovered how Mr. Kerry’s record earned the first-ever endorsement of the abortion lobby. His plea that he could not impose his faith rang hollow: A Catholic can no more wear a St. Christopher medal and carry a rosary in his pocket and oppose every limit on abortion than a liberal can religiously read the Nation and carry a MoveOn.org member card in billfold and oppose every limit on gun ownership.

In stark contrast, Mr. Bush had the virtue of four years of a strong “culture of life” record, unflinching support for traditional marriage, his faith-based initiative and a broad agenda promoting the dignity of the human person — extending even to a belief in a God-given freedom required for any good thing to flourish. On more than one occasion, the president elegantly stated that life, and liberty are gifts from the almighty that must be protected.

All of this may explain another data disconnect between the high number of those surveyed who thought the country was headed in the wrong direction and the president’s positive numbers at the polls. They believe the president, through strong moral leadership, and, respecting their values, can take the country in the right direction.

In the end, a few day-old and therefore, time-worn cliches may have ruled: Maybe character counts, maybe morals matter. For Catholics you might find in pews on any given Sunday, it appears certain. To them, the president may have seemed like a rather decent, if rough, catechumen; and the senator, less a former altar boy than a recovering altar boy. This year, that made the difference.

Leonard A. Leo served as Catholic strategist for the Bush White House and the Bush-Cheney campaign.

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