“Much too much has been made of the moral values answer.”
–Cliff Zukin, a veteran pollster and professor of public policy at Rutgers University

The Pew Research Center conducted a poll asking voters what the most important issues were in the election. What they found not only brings into question whether “moral values,” defined by the right as code words for abortion and gay marriage, were the defining issues, but offers some guidance for progressives who might want to frame their issue with a moral halo.

The Pew Research Center polled 1,209 voters who said they cast ballots in the 2004 presidential election. When those voters were given a list, “moral values” was the most popular choice at 27 percent, followed by Iraq at 22 percent and the economy at 21 percent.

But when they were asked an open-ended question about the top issue, Iraq and the economy moved past moral values. Iraq was picked by 27 percent, the economy by 14 percent and moral values tied with terrorism at 9 percent.

“Moral values was an element in the Bush formula, but probably not the driving one,” said Lee Miringoff, president of the National Council of Public Polls.

The Pew poll found that voters’ reasons for picking “moral values” varies. Just over four in 10 of those who picked “moral values” from the list mentioned social issues like gay marriage and abortion, but others talked about qualities like religion, helping the poor, and candidates’ honesty and strength of leadership.

“Helping the poor and candidates’ honesty and strength of leadership.” Bush doesn’t do number 1, clearly has trouble with telling the truth and defines strength of leadership as stubbornness and rigidity. Just maybe six in 10 of the “moral values” voter pulled the lever for Kerry.