John B. Judis in The New Republic:
Bush carried West Virginia and won the election partly because he ran a better campaign than John Kerry. But that wasn’t the only reason. There was something odd about the support for Bush in places like West Virginia. Unlike voters in New York City, voters in Martinsburg had little to fear from terrorist attacks; yet they backed Bush, while New Yorkers voted for Kerry. If gay marriage were legalized, Martinsburg would be unlikely to host massive numbers of same-sex weddings; yet voters I talked to were haunted by the specter of gay marriage.
Some pundits have tried to explain away this mystery by arguing that Bush backers voted for their values rather than their interests. But this explanation is unsatisfying, since many of those voters didn’t opt for “family values” in 1992 and 1996, when the country elected a well-known philanderer as president.
In fact, many political scientists can’t begin to explain what took place in West Virginia in 2004. In recent years, the field has become dominated by rational choice theorists, who have tried to develop complex mathematical equations to predict voting behavior. These equations rest on a view of voters as calculating consumers choosing a product on the basis of relative cost and utility–a view that generally leaves little room for the possibility of voters acting irrationally.
There is, however, one group of scholars–members of the relatively new field of political psychology–who are trying to explain voter preferences that can’t be easily quantified.
[H/t: Gabriel Cohen.] Here you can find my musings about this dynamic.