WASHINGTON — It seems so long ago. In the weeks after the 2004 election, one exit-poll finding lit up the political world. The survey showed that "moral values" were the single most important issue in the election, narrowly outstripping even the economy and terrorism.
The moral values voters went 80 percent for George W. Bush, and conservative commentators scolded the dreaded liberal media for missing the central dynamic of the election.
"Elites Out of Touch With America's Heart and Soul," crowed the now-defunct New York Sun. Matthew Spalding, the Heritage Foundation's normally careful scholar on religious questions, was also caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment. The election, he said, showed that "cultural liberalism is increasingly unattractive to a significant and growing segment of the American electorate."
Spalding concluded: "If this trend continues, and continues to solidify, the Democrats will never again be a majority party in the United States."
Put aside that pollsters of various ideological stripes subsequently decided that the exit-poll question was flawed. In 2004, so many on all sides just knew that cultural and moral issues were the wave of the future.
But a funny thing happened on the road to the revival tent. The crash of the economy has concentrated the minds of Americans on other things. Moral conflict just isn't what it used to be.
We know this thanks to a useful exercise by the Pew Research Center that has not received enough attention. In a survey released in late May, Pew offered respondents the list of issues that appeared on the 2004 exit poll and asked them which one would matter most if they had to vote for president now.
The proportion responding with "moral values" fell by more than half — from 22 percent in the exit poll (and 27 percent in Pew's own post-2004 election survey) to a mere 10 percent. Concern over the economy and jobs more than doubled, from 20 percent in the 2004 exit poll to 50 percent in the new survey. The other issues that gained substantial ground were health care and education.
The drop in concern over moral values was particularly sharp among older working-class voters who have been trending Republican for years. Moral issues, said Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center, are "less pressing, especially to the populist conservatives who are feeling great economic pressures these days."
Few recent survey findings are more enlightening about what's happening in American politics — and what is likely to happen to the debate over the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.
Conservative moral values voters have become the heart of the Republican coalition, and if their ranks are shrinking, so is the GOP's base. It is no accident that President Barack Obama takes every opportunity to shift the public debate to issues — the economy, health care and education — that the populist conservatives Kohut describes are most likely to find appealing.
It's also striking that while some antiabortion groups issued stinging news releases against Sotomayor, her views on abortion remain a mystery — to the consternation of abortion rights supporters. Both sides want to have a confrontation that Sotomayor may not give them the opportunity to stage.
Thus did Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, note to the Washington Post last week that her organization and the National Right to Life Committee had finally found common ground in their shared desire to have the nominee pressed for her views on abortion.
But the vast majority of Americans are not clamoring for this battle, and they felt that way even before Sunday's murder of George Tiller, a Wichita doctor who performed late-term abortions. The crime drew horrified responses from those on both sides of the abortion issue.
With cultural issues on the decline, Sotomayor's opponents are moving to pick a fight over her views on affirmative action instead, since this is one question that might resonate with white conservative populists. On the political talk shows Sunday, some Republican senators distanced themselves from reckless charges of racism against her from Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. But several also broached the issue of whether Sotomayor might show bias in favor of minorities.
Obama's advisers have moved quickly to blunt this line of attack, partly by highlighting Sotomayor's economic background — her up-from-the-working-class story appeals across racial and ethnic lines — at least as much as her Hispanic roots.
Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., a member of the Judiciary Committee, worked on every Supreme Court confirmation since the 1970s as an adviser to Joe Biden when the vice president served in the Senate. Kaufman said he hopes we have seen "the last battle of the culture wars" and that the debate over Sotomayor will come to be viewed as "the first in a different environment."
With "moral values" voters increasingly scarce, he's likely to get his wish.
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is email@example.com.
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