Remember the headlines after the 2004 election about how millions of voters pulled the lever based on moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage? This year, thanks to the economic problems, even those “values voters” care less about values.

This came through clearly the new Twelve Tribes study by Beliefnet and Prof. John Green of the University of Akron. (Click here for the full Twelve Tribes lowdown).

Overall, the Twelve Tribes survey indicated that just 13% of voters now listed moral issues as their primary concern, half the percentage who did in 2004.

Among members of the Religious Right, the percentage emphasizing social issues plummeted from 50.7% to 37.2%, while the portion emphasizing the economy rose from 18% to 40%. Among the Heartland Culture Warriors – a Tribe consisting of conservative Catholics, conservative mainline Protestants and Mormons — 57% now list the economy first, compared to 28% in 2004.

And, significantly, among Latinos – almost half of whom worship weekly – the emphasis on the economy has skyrocketed from 48% up to 61%. The pattern was repeated among crucial swing Tribes such as Convertible Catholics and Moderate Evangelicals.

Notably, the survey that formed the basis for the Twelve Tribes was conducted this summer, before the most recent financial crisis. If anything the primacy of economic issues has grown since then.

This creates huge opportunity for Barack Obama to win over voters who might otherwise find him too liberal on social issues.

But Democrats can easily misread this data. Many of the swing voters care more about the economy but have not moved to the left in terms of what they want done. For instance, 26% of Convertible Catholics wanted fewer government services; now 38% do. The economic message needs therefore to be one about more jobs and lower taxes, not about more government social programs. There’s still a lot of residual suspicion about big government liberalism, possibly even more now than four years ago.

Democrats would also be wise, then, to also counter the notion that they’re old style liberals. Obama has done this so far primarily by proposing a tax cut and, to some degree, by talking about his religion. What he’s lacked is a cultural conservative issue. Bill Clinton in 1992 helped win over these voters by talking about fighting crime and ending welfare “as we know it.” Obama occasionally talks about the importance of fathers being more involved in their families, but has had no easy-to-recall issue that convinces “swing tribes” that he’s not a cultural liberal. That’s a problem for any Democrat but may bei articularly risky for a liberal, African American from Chicago.

Adapted from Steven Waldman’s column at For more on the Twelve Tribes click here.

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