At first, Kerry supporters were giddy as Election Day started. Exit polls were in Kerry’s favor, long lines were reported at election stations across the country, and the last few national polls showed a definite trend in Kerry’s direction. The presidency seemed practically in Kerry’s hands.
And then, everything went wrong. Not only did Bush win, despite being targeted by numerous movies, books, op-eds, websites, 527 organizations, and everything else that could be thrown at him, but he won convincingly. He was the first candidate in 16 years to win a majority of the votes cast. Stunned Democrats have been left to wonder how he did it. Who, or what, is to blame?
One early culprit was gay marriage. Eleven states, including the swing state of Ohio, had on their ballots state constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage. It is supposed that the conservative base turned out strongly to support these amendments, resulting in additional votes for Bush that handed him Ohio and, thus, the election.
But the numbers don’t show this to be the case. Compared with his showing in 2000, Bush did not improve his stake significantly in states with gay marriage amendments as compared with those without. In Ohio, for example, Bush increased his share of the state’s vote by one percent since 2000, while he increased his share by three percent nationally. The voters in the swing state of Oregon approved a ban on gay marriage but still handed the state rather comfortably to Kerry. Whatever gay marriage’s effect on the election, it was not big enough to be significant.
Others think that Bush was very successful in turning out the evangelical vote across the board, energizing his base as it were, and that carried him over the top. Voters indicated that moral values were the single most important issue behind their vote at 22 percent, and the vast majority of those votes went to Bush.
On the other hand, Bush increased his share of votes from almost every voting constituency there is compared to his share in 2000. According to The Political Junkie Handbook, the only groups where Bush lost ground were gays, 18-29 year-olds, and Protestants. Bush pulled in higher percentages of blacks (three percent), union members (three percent), Jews (six percent), registered Democrats (one percent), and women (five percent)–all groups that are usually considered Democratic turf. Bush also increased his numbers among the less-regular churchgoers by more than he did for the regular churchgoers. His appeal clearly reached beyond the evangelical set.
In addition, while moral values were the single biggest issue, that doesn’t mean that moral values dominated voter thinking. National security as a whole, taken by combining the issues of terrorism and Iraq, was considered most important by 34 percent of voters, and economic issues as a whole (combining taxes, jobs, deficits, etc.) concerned 25 percent of voters. This was not a “moral issues” election; the bread and butter issues of security and the economy still drove the vote.
Yet it wasn’t the “security vote” that did it entirely, either. Former president Bill Clinton recently argued in a speech that the surfacing of the bin Laden tape right before the election made voters not want to change horses in midstream. Paul Freedman argued in Slate that Bush’s 18-point advantage over Kerry on trust in dealing with terrorism was the key to the election. But there’s a gap between having an advantage on an issue and actually turning out voters to vote for you based on that issue.
No, what I think really did it this time around was that the Democrats in 2004 made the same mistake the Republicans did in 1996: they let their hatred of the incumbent overcome their ability to craft a coherent and appealing message to voters. Like I said in my last piece for Brainwash, voters will take something over nothing, even if the something isn’t all that great. The Democrats leaned heavily on the “anyone but Bush” contingent, but failed to give moderate voters a real reason to vote for Kerry.
Voters generally see through the rhetoric, and they know when the animosity is going over the deep end. In 1996, voters saw Republicans seething over Clinton’s presidency and felt more turned off by that than they did over Clinton himself. The same happened this election. Between Michael Moore’s polemics, the Air America diatribes, and the endless stream of celebrities and musicians denouncing the president, voters across the board decided to go elsewhere, as if to punish the hyper-partisanship.
The result was a mandate for the Republicans. Oh, sure, Democratic loyalists will argue that 51 percent of the popular vote isn’t a mandate, or that Kerry got more votes than any other presidential candidate in history except for Bush. But the fact remains that when the Democrats pulled out all the stops, they lost by more than before. Their fervor only made things worse. The Republicans learned their lesson after Clinton; the question is, will the Democrats?
James N. Markels is an attorney and a regular columnist for Brainwash.