Exit polls from the presidential contest suggested that core moral values might have held more sway than religious doctrines or even political philosophies. Now the parties need to read the tea leaves for what it all means going forward.
Five important takeaways have floated to surface:
1) Family comes first for Latinos. When all was said and done, Hispanic Catholics lined up strongly behind President Obama. They gave him 75 percent of their votes (up from 72 percent in 2008), according to exit poll analysis from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Immigration reform was a top priority for Hispanic voters this year, according to Miguel Rivera, president of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders. Though Obama failed to act on the status of some 11 million undocumented immigrants in his first term, Latinos still trusted him more than Romney to get it done soon. At stake for many is whether family members will be allowed to work and stay together, or live under the threat of deportation indefinitely.
Republicans insist they should be the party of Latinos, who tend to be regular churchgoers and hold socially conservative views. But the GOP’s positions on abortion and same-sex marriage can’t sway those who want, first and foremost, promising paths for their loved ones. Family values prevailed in a raw sense over ideology. And if Obama gets credit for passing immigration reform in the future, it could be hard for Republicans to win these voters’ hearts.
2) Republicans are broadening their religious coalition. God’s Old Party, as it’s playfully known, broke new ground by lining up support behind a non-Protestant presidential nominee. Evangelicals overcame hesitations about voting for a Mormon as 79 percent cast ballots for Romney. In another interesting sign, 85 percent of Americans living in Israel voted for Romney as well. While Jews overall went for Obama, 30 percent voted for the GOP nominee, up from 21 percent in 2008. Efforts to bring the devout from various backgrounds under one political tent are arguably making progress.
3) Democrats attract non-traditionalists, who nonetheless vote values. As growing numbers of Americans (nearly 20 percent) profess no religious affiliation, Democrats are reaping the harvest of their skeptical votes. Sixty-two percent of those who never attend religious services voted for Obama. In fact, it’s now proven that the less often one worships, the more likely he/she is to vote Democratic.
4) Establishment values are safe with Republicans. People who might fancy themselves as stalwarts of society – married women, weekly churchgoers and high earners, for example – voted overwhelmingly for Romney. These are people who, if we may generalize, tend to value societal stability and the taking of personal responsibility for one’s affairs. In other words, they value holding people accountable, sometimes by letting markets mete out discipline and sometimes by enforcing limits on what individuals may do.
Being an establishment-friendly party isn’t especially promising, however, at a time when more and more people feel alienated from institutions. If there’s hope here, it’s for the moral value of accountability to be applied meaningfully to powerful corporations and individuals, along with everyone else. If establishment pillars get a free pass, then lip service to accountability will ring hollow and disingenuous. A party that seems unwilling to use power judiciously won’t appeal to fairness-minded, religious voters forever.
5) Issues framed in moral terms resonate. The religious right might be smarting after Vote 2012, but moral concerns in public life are far from defeated. Candidates such as Elizabeth Warren framed issues in terms of moral responsibilities. Example: holding white-collar lawbreakers accountable. A presumed duty to protect the vulnerable, articulated by Nuns on the Bus and others, gave a moral architecture to President Obama’s victorious campaign.
In Alabama, concerns for public morality helped so-called “10 Commandments Judge” Roy Moore win election to the state’s highest judicial post. Moral arguments for the sanctity of life carried the day as Massachusetts voters shot down efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide.
Even successful same-sex marriage initiatives in Maryland, Maine and Washington were framed not only in terms of tolerance but as “the right thing to do” in terms of extending marriage benefits beyond heterosexual couples. Voters of all stripes seem to want governance from a place of moral conviction.
If there’s any loser in 2012, it might be the notion that one cannot or should not legislate morality. Moral codes are very much driving what’s afoot in red states, blue states and the nation’s capitol. The specifics and interpretations just happen to vary – sometimes quite a bit – from one setting to the next.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a journalist, ordained minister and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010). Check out his work here.