It's "the economy, stupid," said former Clinton strategist James Carville when asked to define the issues of the 1992 campaign. Carville is an excellent strategist, a good friend and a good man. But he knows that voters are never one-dimensional when they choose a presidential candidate. Even when the economy is bad, voters are ultimately deciding on their hopes and dreams, both for the present and for their children's future. Thus, if it is about anything, voting is about values, about principles that we hold closest to our hearts.

Back in December 2003, I came out with a poll that defined the election of 2004. I asked a large number of values questions related to God, guns, sex, babies, the Clintons and the Bushes, and so on. In assessing the data, I used the purely artificial construct of "blue states" (those that voted for Al Gore in 2000) and "red states" (those that voted for George W. Bush). Remember, some of those states fell into one category or another by only hundreds of votes. Still, what was remarkable to me was actually how different the reds and blues were. In red states, 61 percent of voters owned a gun; only 36 percent in the blue states. Most voters believed in God, but in the red states, three in four identified their God as omniscient and omnipresent, while 51 percent of blues saw God principally as The Watchmaker. Voters were 9 points more likely to be single and never married if they lived in a blue state.

After that divisive 2000 election, the United States had a healing period. By late 2006, a critical mass of voters was telling us that they wanted their next president to be a "problem-solver" and a "consensus-builder." Despite the rhetoric of the Democratic and GOP primaries of 2008, both parties nominated two candidates who could legitimately claim those traits: one by vision and sentiment, the other by legislative experience.

On the table were issues of war and peace, security and status anxiety. Fear of terrorism, loss of health benefits, even perceived threats of border insecurity and the sanctity of marriage were on people's minds. And while there was never a consensus on the best approach to resolve these problems, at least for a while the prevailing view was that, in the famous words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "we have to try something."

The Current Divides

Today, a values divide has taken center stage. There are plenty of areas where political leaders can find common ground, but this campaign is nearly all about feeding red meat to the base of ideological supporters. And in recent polling [3] by JZ Analytics, I got a close look at how Americans remain deeply divided on some basic values. Here are just a few instances.

Which of the following statements comes closer to your opinion?

1. Statement A - The US experienced a very serious economic recession. In an economy based on private investment and consumer spending, it is necessary during a crisis for the federal government to pump money into the economy to hire unemployed, increase consumer spending, and invest in new directions like green collar jobs and infrastructure renewal.

2. Statement B - The US is drowning in government debt and taxpayers will be saddled with paying it back for generations. This has fostered a dangerous cycle of dependence on the government which must be stopped. The best resolution is a combination of spending cuts, lower taxes to encourage private spending and investment, and reduced government regulations to encourage new business.

3. Not sure

This is so much more than a question about the role of government. This is about how Americans define responsibility, citizenship and values they want their government to express. Overall, only about one in three voters (35 percent) agreed with Statement A, the Keynesian/New Deal/Great Society/Obama version of government, where Washington plays an activist role in relief, recovery and reform.

Half (50 percent), on the other hand, identified with the Reagan/Republican view of government as the enemy, the engine that causes debt, dependence and disincentive to growth. About half of Democrats (48 percent) agree with A, but one-third (33 percent) agreed with B and almost 19 percent were not sure. Democrats seem to have soured a bit on big government. Almost three in four Republicans agreed with B and only 19 percent with A. This appears to be a unifying theme for GOP voters. Independents tilt toward the anti-government-spending view-47 percent to 35 percent. Only 18-29 year olds are tied on this issue, while support for the Republican view grew with age.

Another question on immigration paralleled views on government.

Which of the following statements comes closer to your opinion?

1. Statement A - The US is a nation of immigrants. Immigration has been the source of renewed spirit for the nation and the American Dream, a sign of a culture of tolerance, entrepreneurial growth and productive labor.

2. Statement B - Immigration is a key part of the American tradition of tolerance but in a time of serious economic crises there is a need to place limits on immigration in order to protect American jobs.

3. Not sure

Immigration is a strong tradition, and Americans get it. But those who want to limit it outnumbered those who want to tout it-50 percent agreed with Statement B, while 38 percent sided with Statement A. The Democratic base was solidly behind immigration as a source of identity and pride: Liberals (62 percent), 18-29 year olds (56 percent), Hispanics (63 percent), African Americans (51 percent), and the Creative Class (52 percent). But there were cracks in the party's coalition. Women favored limits (50 percent to 34 percent), as did moderates (52 percent to 36 percent). Democratic Party leaders have clearly stated their support for immigration and reform, but the Republicans seem to have dominated in their views on the issue.

On the flip side, Democrats can probably take heart in how voters are lining up on their view of foreign policy.

Which of the following statements comes closer to your opinion?

1. Statement A - The United States is the world's indispensable nation. American values are what most people in the world want and US acts legitimately as the world's true superpower.

2. Statement B - The United States has reached its limits as superpower and needs to coordinate foreign policy and protect its interests more in concert with other major regional powers like China, Russia, Brazil, and India as well as with allies and groups like the United Nations and NATO.

3. Not sure

Slightly more (43 percent) agreed with the second statement, "the limits of the US as a superpower" than with "American Exceptionalism," as expressed in the first statement (39 percent). But the margins of support among various subgroups told a significant story. A majority of Democrats (53 percent) identified with B, as a majority Republicans (55 percent) held to A. A plurality (44 percent to 30 percent) favored the view expressed in B-the limits of superpower. Just as striking were the differences among age cohorts, as 18-29 year olds (44 percent to 35 percent) and 30-49 year olds (48 percent to 32 percent) strongly agreed with the end-of-empire view, while voters aged 50-64 (45 percent to 37 percent) and those over 65 (47 percent to 35 percent) preferred what we might call "John McCain's America."

Questions on family values also show a split:

Which of the following statements comes closer to your opinion?

1. Statement A - The family is the basis of a strong community and culture. The ideal family is built around a stable marriage between a man and a woman.

2. Statement B - Many socio-economic and demographic factors have caused our society to redefine the structure and composition of family. A family can still be the stable unit of a good society if it is headed by a single adult, a same-sex relationship, or grandparents.

3. Not sure

No doubt Americans prefer the traditional family as the ideal-51 percent agreed with Statement A. That includes 75 percent of Republicans and conservatives, a majority of all age cohorts over thirty, 55 percent of those without a college degree, a majority of Catholics and Protestants. But 40 percent recognize new demographics and social realities-including 56 percent of Democrats, 51 percent of moderates, 68 percent of liberals, 61 percent of 18-29 year olds (including 72 percent of 18-24 year olds). Interestingly, independents were split (45 percent for A, 43 percent B), as was the creative class (50 percent for A, 48 percent for B).
These are four critical areas and key values-the role of government and the definition of citizenship; the importance of immigration to our national interest; the place of the United States in history and global affairs; and the definition of family in our society. To a great degree, voters in 2012 will be focused on how they are doing in a tough economy and which of the two candidates has a better handle on managing the current global crisis. But this will not be the only thing on their minds. There are strong disagreements on the direction of our major institutions and social norms. But the real story here may very well be which of the above issues pushes the buttons of some of the demographic and ideological groups whose views are so starkly different.
This pollster will be watching a lot of other things besides the unemployment rate and the price of corn and gas.