Will a man who cheats on his wife cheat on the public? Virginia voters faced that question a decade ago after enduring a stream of reports about then Senator Chuck Robb's embarrassing extramarital exploits. Old Dominion residents clamored about being appalled at Robb's behavior. Come November 1994, however, Robb won reelection, edging out Oliver North. Conservative Virginia voters, it was said, intoned, Robb is one of ours.
Pollster John Zogby pinpointed a similar paradox. He had fielded a survey in August 2001 on Leadership and Virtue, which revealed that a whopping 96 percent said it was important for a leader to be virtuous, not a womanizer who humiliated his wife.
As he drafted a speech to deliver his findings just after the 9/11 attacks, Zogby paused to insert a line: Then there's Rudy.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York City who had begun September 2001 largely discredited due to flagrant infidelity, had been reborn on September 11 as America's favorite city leader.
Politicians, pollsters and the public have begun to see the issues of morality and leadership collide rather than converge, leading to contradictory and sometimes preternatural election results. Do voters just talk the talk on morality, but walk somewhere else when they enter the voting booth? Do other issues matter more?
That's a question John Kerry would sure like to know the answer to. As of June 1, he has 155 days left before the election. Is that enough time for him to find God?
Nope. If he wanted to win the Mr. Morality title, Kerry should have started hunting for Him at least two years ago. But Kerry may not need to campaign with the Lord in order to win (or lose) this year's race. According to two polls conducted in March and April 2004 exclusively for American Demographics by Zogby International, while opinions about morality and leadership may divide Americans, the real Red state-Blue state splits are more intractable than ever.
True, these polls, like many others, bespeak a cultural chasm, and a fault line between practicing religious believers and the rest of America. And yes, almost 9 in 10 Americans say they believe their candidate should share the same moral worldview they embrace.
But the numbers start to disintegrate when voters face up to having to name moral leaders, or when they confront specific examples of what might be described as unethical behavior. In 2004, party allegiance and ideology seem to count more than other critical issues such as income, race, the economy, age and yes, morality.
In other words, this year many issues matter to voters, but none matters as much as winning.
Americans seem bound this election season to reconcile their candidates with party-driven voting decisions. No one wants to concede a mistake by his party's candidate, says Paul Begala, well-known political consultant who helped steer Bill Clinton into the White House in 1992. He and several other veteran politicos, columnists and a respected theologian, agreed to give their opinions on the American Demographics' polls. Begala says the bunker mentality on both sides is clear in the answers to the morality poll, when examples are raised. Even in a poll, No one will give an inch, if they think it will hurt their side, he says.
That is why the word polarization, at 12 letters, is still too small to describe the gap between Red and Blue voters. Since David Brooks' piece in The Atlantic Monthly in 2001, it has become an article of faith that conservatives are, well, more faith-bound. This poll suggests that residents of Red states have been almost romanticized in their belief in values, and Blue voters demonized, while the reality is more blurred than that. Values may bend this way or that to the needs of party or ideological affiliation. Except for the extremes, and a consistent percentage of self-avowed born-again Christians, many conservatives, like their liberal counterparts on the left, will hunt for and find a way to support their own candidate this year. As a true determinant, morality apparently will have to sort itself out.
WHAT VOTERS WANT
Morality was indeed a critical issue in 2000, in light of Clinton's well-publicized misbehavior, says Tucker Carlson, a GOP commentator on CNN. However, in 2004, with the world pockmarked by war and terrorism, he says, morality is a luxury, to many voters, even Republicans. Carlson adds, People would vote for Hugh Hefner if they thought he would keep them safe.
In the end, voters want comfort. In the voting booth, they will embrace like-minded candidates, defined largely by party, ideology and religion even when their candidates' peccadilloes or positions on values don't match their own. Personal vices may arise, and conflicting viewpoints may emerge, but they'll only affect a small number of voters this time. One last note after interviewing the pros on these results: A poll is as good as its respondents are honest, not just with the pollsters, but with themselves.
Normally, in spring of an election year, Zogby says some 20 percent of people polled would be undecided; another 20 percent might be soft. But this time, he says, only 5 percent say they are undecided. He adds, I always said this country has a centrist party waiting to be formed. But not this year; that feeling is gone.
We're entrenched, says Carlson. Candidates want to capture the middle, but there is no middle this time, he says. It's almost impossible to find moderates.
Or great leaders. Less than 20 percent of those surveyed in mid-April felt that leadership is a common trait today. More than 3 in 4 said they felt there were few people who could be described as leaders. Teachers and parents ranked the highest.
One answer positively stunned Professor Steffen Schmidt of Iowa State University, an expert on presidential candidates. Politicians are the second lowest in standards after sports figures! YIPES! he says.
Yes, 29 percent said that politicians were the worst leaders. But almost half 46 percent gave that distinction to sports and entertainment types. The respondents realize that politicians and business leaders have failed society in many ways, says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. But they also point the finger at the right group, the profession that, by and large, has given the worst example of all to the young: entertainers and sports stars.
Interestingly, broken down by race, 47 percent of white respondents were more likely to denigrate sports/entertainment figures, compared with 32 percent of African Americans.
IS CHARISMA A NON-FACTOR?
More than 7 in 10 questioned about leadership said they would prefer their leaders be held to higher standards. Tony Blankley, former adviser to Newt Gingrich and now Editorial Page editor of The Washington Times, says that the American public wants a good, Bible-believing man. Nothing is really going to change that.
But the answers to what characteristic was most important in defining a true leader made several experts wonder if respondents were kidding the pollster, or kidding themselves. A huge majority 66 percent chose integrity or morality. More than three-fourths of the Republicans went with integrity, compared with 53 percent of the Democrats. Almost 75 percent of the 55- to 69-year-olds chose this quality, compared with just half of the 18- to 24-year-olds and half of the African Americans. Only 16 percent overall opted for intelligence as the crucial leadership trait.
However, charisma, that nebulous attribute, only nabbed 2 percent, when lined up with other factors. But there's a reason that magazines with titles like Us and People make money and politicians imitate celebrities. There's a reason that there is a multimillion dollar business of consultants who measure charisma in candidates, and try to get their politician to develop it. There's a reason George W. Bush is attractive to voters and even to reporters. Perhaps, says commentator and former Democratic activist, Mark Shields, this is one question where even in an anonymous survey, the respondents don't want to admit the obvious lure of charisma or charm. Morality and integrity just sound like a better choice, he explains.
Americans are certainly more media savvy, and perhaps more cynical these days. Some 71 percent say they think leaders in the past were just as un-virtuous as some current politicians they just think that earlier scandals were ignored or covered up by the media.
The morality poll elicited provocative answers. Just how did those polled define morality?
Almost half 46 percent said it was the Golden Rule: treating others as you want to be treated. About one-third said morality meant following Biblical or spiritual principles. And slightly over 1 in 10 chose what might be called the San Francisco solution: staying true to your own convictions, whatever they may be.
This question had interesting dimensions. While 46 percent of whites chose the Golden Rule as their metaphor for morality, 43 percent of African Americans defined it as adhering to the Bible. A quarter of those who described themselves as very conservative defined morality as following Biblical principles.
Integrity and morality are salient, says Schmidt, but the definition by people of morality is so goofy [and not what the media generally thinks]I mean, treating others as you want to be treated, what's that? And, if a person shares your moral or I assume immoral views, then you can forgive them their transgressions! No wonder Bill Clinton got off scott-free.
One might have thought that Roman Catholics, often seen as conservatives, would have given Biblical principles the most weight. But Catholics were more than twice as likely to say that how you treat others was the best definition of moral behavior. Dr. Jude Dougherty of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. says that over the past decades, appeals to Biblical morality have been undermined by academic culture. There are few common moral standards, he explains. That makes it simpler, less judgmental, to define the indeterminate Golden Rule as a new standard. We have prudential applications today, he says, with regard to long-held rules. Many people believe that Morality is not an end in itself, but a means to self-fulfillment. And that encompasses treating others well.
IDEOLOGY TRUMPS MORALITY
If the Golden Rule trumps the Bible as a moral standard among respondents, what does this mean for the election? In theory, a politician who, as Begala recommends, describes hunger, poverty, injustice or homelessness in America as a sin, should attract that Golden Rule vote. But it won't necessarily happen that way.
That's because, he says, voters will ascribe the morality they seek to the ideology they believe.
Indeed, asked to name a moral leader, 3 in 10 respondents chose Jimmy Carter. A distant second was Abraham Lincoln with 18 percent; President Bush got 15 percent. Surprisingly, Bill Clinton got 6 percent, but that was still 5 percentage points more than Dick Cheney.
If morality and integrity were the foremost factors in choosing a leader, Carter would have been reelected, chirped most of the political experts.
What works in the presidency is leadership with a capital L, says Sabato, author of several books on voter behavior. Moral Jimmy Carter didn't have it, and immoral Bill Clinton did, he adds. Much like Machiavelli, Americans intrinsically know that leadership is more important than morality in running the world's only superpower. Ideally, they'd like to have both; but it's a rare leader who doesn't have to bend the rules of morality to get to the Oval Office and stay there.
Besides, says historian David Halberstam, Carter's renaissance is post-White House. We know him now from Habitat for Humanity, trying to stop dictators and other good works, says Halberstam. But at the time of the Iranian Revolution, Americans wanted someone who exhibited strong leadership first, and Carter came in second to Ronald Reagan. Carter's strong 30 percent showing in this morality poll did not hold up among Republicans, conservatives and very conservatives.
And where was John Kerry? He was near the bottom of the moral leader list with only 2 percent. Does this mean he should quickly announce that he has found God? Absolutely not, says former New Hampshire politician and talk show host Arnie Arnesen. A Democrat, Arnesen has seen pols try to fake it without success. Kerry can't talk God like Bush can, and he'd be laughed at if he tried to talk about religion now, she says. But for the rest of this campaign, Arnesen believes, Kerry should surround himself with people who do have credibility on this. That includes religious leaders, politicians who are born-again Christians, prominent Catholics whatever.
Americans are a forgiving people. But there's a twist. Two-thirds of the respondents in the American Demographics survey would forgive someone's mistakes or transgressions as long as that person shared their moral view of the world. Both Hispanics (69 percent) and African Americans (78 percent) would be more likely than whites to forgive errant folks who think like them. But a plurality of all the subgroups, including 65 percent of Republicans, would let a fellow believer off the hook.
In fact, sharing the same moral outlook on the world is important in a presidential candidate. Almost 9 in 10 respondents (89 percent) said this factor was important. More than half the Republicans polled (55 percent) said this was very important, but only a third of the Democrats thought so. And more women than men wanted a similar moral view in their candidate.
But when the total of 89 percent is broken down, only 44 percent deemed it very important; another 45 percent said somewhat important. And that difference seems to be one of the issues in testing whether morality will actually sway a vote for one candidate or another.
People care about ethics, says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. But when one looks at the way respondents parsed their answers in separate segments of the polls, he says, Ethics shows up as an important, but not a sufficient issue.
WINNING TRUMPS VALUES
Polarization, and its outgrowth, the need to trump the other side, may be the strongest pull here. Shields opines, Your candidate may fail morally in some examples, but if you concede that point, you will hurt your cause.
That may explain the unusual answers to questions about specific actions involving public leaders.
Some questions stood out: When George W. Bush was an executive at Harken Energy, and suddenly sold all his shares, right before the company's stock tanked, did he do something immoral? Did Hillary Clinton have a lapse in ethics when, as wife of then Governor Clinton in Arkansas, she got secret advice about commodity trading from the attorney for Tyson Foods? Did Al Gore sin when he claimed credit for inventing the Internet?
Although a plurality of 45 percent said Bush had acted immorally, another 34 percent said his action had nothing to do with morality. And 47 percent said Hillary Clinton's connection with Tyson's had nothing to do with morality. Perhaps with anonymous examples, respondents might have noticed allusions to corporate and Wall Street insider behavior regarded as unethical today. Martha Stewart was only convicted of lying. But she is reviled for selling her stock high before others had a chance to do so. These respondents may be part of the 45 percent who said morality was only somewhat important.
Ornstein suggests that the large numbers of respondents who said these actions weren't related to morality were trying to protect their candidate, their party, the ideological connection.
William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, agrees. The problem here is that respondents see these questions through the lens of their own partisanship. For example, they were more concerned with Kerry's dissembling about his tossing away other people's war medals, than with Dick Cheney's financial dealings with Halliburton, according to the American Demographics poll. He adds, I was struck by the level of the reaction to Gore's Internet statement 35 percent said it was immoral.
Most important, Frey was surprised at the relative insignificance of income, education, regional location and age to most of the answers. A veteran of poll dissection, Frey says, The point, after reading this, is that with this country so divided, ideology has become more important than almost anything.
None of the experts interviewed felt the polls could predict the election results. However, the surveys were conducted during the frenzy over indecency on TV and radio, and in the wake of news reports on congressional fury at such behavior. They might be good indicators of what advertisers should consider in the future, according to an executive with a major New York public relations firm, and ironically, the only person who asked not to be quoted by name. He notes that Anheuser-Busch was reviewing its beer ads for sexual innuendo and bad taste. Cultural polarization may prompt large corporations to tailor their ads for cars, beer, retail chains, etc. to more narrowly target Red and Blue residential areas. It's already happening, he says, but smart companies are going to be doing more of it.
Meanwhile, for this season, Zogby says the ideological division and lack of undecideds leave politicians with only rare opportunities to pick off a few voters. He's watching NASCAR dads closely. They will probably vote Republican. But these blue-collar and low- to mid-level white-collar workers are vulnerable to economic swings. The issue is whether Kerry can pick them off on job losses. The same with veterans, particularly GOP vets of the Vietnam War, who might be tempted to vote for Kerry because he's one of theirs.
But that's all. The lesson of these polls is not that the morality and leadership factors don't count as much as people say they do, but that in this climate they won't provide wiggle room.
Washington, D.C.-based writer Alicia Mundy is a fellow of the New America Foundation. Her stories on the intersection of politics, media and corporate America have appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, GQ, Columbia Journalism Review, the Washingtonian, The Washington Monthly, MediaWeek and Cable World.
How do you define Morality?
|Treating others as you want to be treated||46%|
|Following biblical or spiritual principles||32%|
|Staying true to your own convictions||11%|
|Source: American Demographics/Zogby International|
This feature is based on the results of two nationally representative telephone polls conducted exclusively for American Demographics by Zogby International one focusing on morality, the other on leadership. Participants were chosen at random, and slight weights were added to region, party, age, race, religion, gender and 2000 presidential election vote to more accurately reflect the overall population. Margins of error are higher in subgroups.
MORALITY Date conducted: April 15-17, 2004. Number of adults included in nationwide sample: 1,192. Margin of error: +/- 2.8 percentage points.
LEADERSHIP Date conducted: March 17-19, 2004. Number of adults included in nationwide sample: 1,204. Margin of error: +/- 2.9 percentage points