How Sex Rocks the Vote

| September / October 2003

For 70 years, divisions in American politics broke along economic lines. Generally speaking, blue-collar workers voted Democrat; white-collar workers voted Republican. But today there is a more reliable predictor of people's political allegiances than their pocketbooks: where they stand on sexual issues.

Dick Morris and Mark Penn, advisers to Bill Clinton during the 1996 election campaign, came up with a polling technique that produced consistent results: The more liberal a person was on sexual attitudes, the more likely the person was to vote Democrat. Conversely, the likelihood a person would vote Republican rose in direct proportion to how conservative his or her attitudes were toward sex.

A map showing percentages of adult movies in the home-video market by state 'bore an eerie resemblance' to the 2000 election results, remarked former Delaware governor Pete du Pont in a recent Wall Street Journal Web site column. A survey conducted by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States ( also found that the vast majority of states that voted for George W. Bush are states that are less responsive to issues of sexual rights and sexual health. Criteria used in this survey included the right to engage in sexual behavior in private, the right to express one's sexual orientation, and the right to sexual information and health services.

'Whereas elections once pitted the party of the working class against the party of Wall Street,' writes Thomas Byrne Edsall in The Atlantic Monthly (Jan./Feb. 2003), 'they now pit voters who believe in a fixed and universal morality against those who see moral issues, especially sexual ones, as elastic and subject to personal choice.' Edsall goes on to state that there is only 'one thing that trumps sex: war. As long as a terrorist attack is a serious threat, war talk will dominate elections. But sex, unlike war, does not go away; its return to political center stage is inevitable. And that is decidedly to the Democrats' advantage.'

This means, alarmingly, that continued war and the threat (or perceived threat) of terrorism could be George W. Bush's best hope for winning another term. Now that the Republicans control both the Senate and the House, they are aggressively pushing a sexually conservative agenda. But as Edsall projects, 'positioning the Republican Party as the party of sexual repression would be devastating to its electoral prospects.' So it will be a fine line for the Bush administration to tread: working furiously at passing legislation to fulfill its promises to the conservative right while downplaying its agenda in the media to keep swing voters in hand for 2004.

Anne Geske is an Utne intern.

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