Rise of moral issues produces a shift right beyond the Democrats

Call it the anti-Janet Jackson boob vote, if you like. The pro-gun vote, the anti-gay marriage vote or the Jesus vote.

For all the strategising in both parties on which of the key popular concerns was most likely to win the election for their candidate - would it be Iraq, terrorism or matters of the wallet? - it may have been none of the above that will end up driving the final result. The trump card appears to have been moral issues.

When they look back at Election 2004, political historians will see one trend above all others and it clearly worked in favour of George Bush and against John Kerry. Voters, especially those in the heartland states, took moral values as their core standard in deciding which candidate to support.

Indeed, this may emerge as the most surprising finding to emerge. Even if it meant voting against their more obvious economic interests and even when they harboured misgivings on Iraq, voters everywhere found themselves guided by moral issues first. Family values means less about food on the table than about God at the table.

And as these questions come to the fore, so the country appears to have shifted culturally to the right. Strikingly, ballot initiatives to ban marriage for same-sex couples were before voters in 11 states - and they passed in all of them. In some, even existing domestic partnership rights will now be taken away. Perhaps the country was always thus, but either way it will give Democrats grave reason to worry. Their man was a Catholic, a war hero and yet he still failed to connect with the country's conservative mainstream. Can a candidate with remotely socially liberal positions win in America again?

For evidence of what happened, you need look no further than exit-polling numbers. Most surprisingly, a Los Angeles Times national survey found that more than half of voters for Mr Bush cited moral issues as the principal reason for their support. They were more important to his supporters even than terrorism.

And then look at what was in the heads of Kerry supporters. They cited the economy as their top concern over moral issues by a margin of about two to one. Another survey taken in the three most important battleground states found that moral issues were first on the agenda of Bush voters in Ohio and were almost their top concern in Florida and Pennsylvania, coming second only to terrorism.

The political polarisation of America is thus also a cultural one. And deepening that division are matters of religious affiliation and degrees of religious zeal. About one-fifth of voters describe themselves as born-again Christians and on Tuesday they voted enthusiastically for Mr Bush as "one of them", by a margin of roughly four to one. Among regular church-goers Mr Bush was the winner handily. Mr Kerry fared better with occasional worshippers.

It is part of what appears to have lost Florida for Mr Kerry. The incumbent took more than half of the Protestant and Catholic vote in the state - and about eight in 10 Floridians belong to one of those religions. "As a Christian, Bush upholds the morals and values that I believe the constitution was built on," explained one voter, Brett Williamson, a 20-year-old student in Tallahassee.

"I believe in many of the same values as he does - against same-sex marriage, and not taking God out of the constitution," echoed Chris Pierson, a nurse, in the Orlando area.

For decades, the Democratic Party depended on inner-city churches, many of them Baptist with mostly black congregations, to bring out crucial chunks of support on election day. Now the Church factor has become powerful for Republicans instead. Around the country, they were a crucial force in encouraging Bush voters to register and to vote.

Mr Kerry's big mistake? Maybe that he simply couldn't shake the liberal label Mr Bush plastered on him. "Kerry came across as more liberal than Gore," argues Eric Buermann, chief lawyer for the Republicans in Miami. "It didn't appeal to middle-of-the road voters."

If perceived liberalism is a handicap in Florida, it seems to be poison in the heartland states. And that is where the Democrats will have to do some serious thinking. "On values," remarked Nebraska's governor, Mike Johanns, "they are really non-competitive in the heartland."

Mr Kerry went goose hunting. He withheld offering support for gay marriage. He talked tough on defence and the military. But still it was not enough. He could cite economic statistics till the cows came home. But where there are cows in America, there are fewer and fewer Democrats.