Masters Thesis

A study of framing, flawed exit polling, and the print media's focus on the "moral values" in the 2004 election

During the 2004 election season, conservative elites employed superior agenda-setting techniques and utilized the mass media to sway public opinion on sensitive social issues in hopes of generating electoral success for conservative candidates, particularly President George W. Bush. Conservative elites such as religious leaders, members of Congress, and the Bush/Cheney campaign team, developed frames to describe emotive social issues such as same-sex marriage and stem cell research, with the intention that the conservative viewpoint on these issues would resonate with the public and earn them votes in the election. They succeeded. The mass media in turn, accepted many of the conservative frames, and engaged in widespread transmission of them to the American public. As a result, the Republican Party enjoyed gains in Congress, and President Bush earned reelection. This thesis details what frames rose to prominence in the 2004 election season; namely the so-called "moral" frames regarding issues such as same-sex marriage and stem cell research. This paper will allow the reader to see how framing was used, what frames were utilized, and how conservatives were successful in converting this hard work into votes for their candidates. The nucleus of my argument resides in the second half of this paper; dealing with the problems behind our understanding, as a country, of the significance of the widespread conservative victories in 2004. My research shows that the national exit poll was a flawed measurement of public perception of the social and political issues at hand during the election. The print media failed in its attempt to paint a picture that would explain why many Americans chose "moral values" as the core issue that influenced their vote. Furthermore, the print press contributed to the "moral values" confusion after the election by providing electoral analysis using many of the same conservative frames from the election season. This paper will argue that, based on a faulty exit poll and a lack of electoral analysis by the print media, these "moral" issues were not the reasons for conservative victories in 2004, and the GOP's success in 2004 should not dictate a future change in electoral strategy by the Democratic and Republican parties.