The Folklore of Election '04

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Few political rituals are so honored as overreading the results of an election. In the rush to explain this one, at least six myths have taken root:

A tidal wave of churchgoers won the day. As Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin notes, the percentage of the voting electorate that attends church once a week was 42%—precisely what it was in 2000. And President Bush's percentage of that vote was 58%, up a mere point from 2000. Bush's greatest gains came among voters who attend church less often, including an increase of 4 percentage points of those who never go.

People based their votes on their moral values. Though 22% cited their moral values as the deciding issue, the percentage that cited one of the two biggest foreign policy issues, Iraq and terrorism, was significantly higher—34%. And it turns out that a "moral value" is in the conscience of the beholder. In a poll due out this week from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, 42% of respondents said the war in Iraq was the most important moral issue influencing their vote, compared with 13% who chose abortion and less than 10% who chose gay marriage.

All the hype about young voters was wrong; they stayed home, as they always do. Yes and no. After a lengthy slide in youth voting, nearly 21 million under-30 voters showed up at the polls this year, a 9% increase from 2000. But since just about everyone else showed up in bigger numbers too, their percentage of the total electorate was roughly what it was four years ago.

The hundreds of millions George Soros and other Bush foes poured into turning out the Democratic base was a waste. The outcome may not have been to their liking, but the Democrats' efforts paid off. Kerry got about 4.1 million votes more than Al Gore did four years ago. And nearly 60% of that increase can be found in the states that were targeted by the independent groups. What they didn't count on: that the Republican turnout operation produced an even bigger surge of 8.2 million votes nationally for Bush.

The country has moved to the right on social issues. TIME's polling suggests that voters remain where they have been for a very long time: in the moderate middle on the most sizzling social issues. They overwhelmingly favor (69% to 22%) using discarded embryos for stem-cell research; only 9% oppose abortion in all circumstances; and while 58% say they oppose gay marriage, about the same number—60%—approve of some kind of official recognition of gay unions, an AP poll says.

John Kerry didn't lose the election; it was stolen. Conspiracy theories abound on left-leaning websites—particularly about Florida and Ohio, the two states that determined the outcome. None of them seem to be holding up. Why, for instance, did Bush win many Florida counties where the majority of registered voters are Democrats? Those areas in the northern and central parts of the state have long traditions of voting Republican in presidential contests.