President Bush’s reelection strategists appear to believe that turning out the base is the key to victory in November. “The party that motivates their base – that makes their base emotional and turn out – has a much higher likelihood of success on Election Day,” Matthew Dowd, a senior advisor to Bush’s reelection campaign, told the New York Times last fall. Democrats, too, according to the Times, believe that getting core party voters to the polls “will be more critical to [the] election than winning independent voters.”
Such statements are sheer poetry to party activists who revel in stories of their unmatched influence. Too bad it’s just not true that the base wins elections. Instead, it’s the middle that provides the margin of victory.
On the right, strategists of the base-is-everything school argue that the way to get conservatives excited is for Bush to run as a fearless, died-in-the-wool conservative. Thus, they say, did Reagan supposedly win in 1980 and 1984 – and Bush the younger in 2000. In this interpretation, base voters also get credit for Bush Senior’s loss in 1992. Supposedly, the elder Bush abandoned his core constituency, and defeat was the inevitable result.
But, according to Voter News Service, in every presidential election since 1980, the candidate who won the independent vote was the one who made it to Pennsylvania Avenue. In the most recent election, George W. Bush beat Al Gore among independents 47 to 45 percent. The impact of core party activists, on the other hand, was negligible. In 1992, when the temporizing, tax-hiking Bush Senior lost, self-identified conservatives were 30 percent of the voters. In 2000, when his born-again, tax-cutting son won, the figure was 29 percent.
Second, there is no evidence that the base is wont to sink their party’s nominee by depriving the candidate of support. But isn’t that exactly how Bush Senior lost in 1992? No. Conservatives like to cite the 1992 race as a warning to Republicans who might be tempted to play the middle, but in that race Bush won 78 percent of the two-party conservative vote, nearly matching the 81 percent in his successful 1988 campaign. Bush didn’t lose because conservatives abandoned him; he lost because independents did. In 1988, Bush won a hefty 55 percent of independents. Four years later, he won a dismal 32 percent.
In the 2004 election, George W. Bush must have the courage to benignly neglect his conservative base and head to the political center occupied by tens of millions of independent voters. In practice, this means consciously avoiding social issues like abortion, gun control, and gay rights. It also means steering clear of economic and domestic policy issues. The White House has been floating “The Ownership Society” as a major campaign theme to package Bush’s domestic policy ideas on retirement, health care, job creation, and so on. This is a mistake, in my humble opinion. On domestic policy, President Bush should adopt France’s mantra after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War: “Think of it always, speak of it never.” The ugly truth is that most independents disagree with conservatives when it comes to social and economic issues. Even on taxes – a supposed Republican strength – a March 2004 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that voters preferred John Kerry’s position over Bush’s by 55 to 39 percent.
Since Bush can’t sway independents with his policies, he must emphasize his personality. Indeed, this is precisely how the Republican party has dominated several recent presidential elections. From 1968 to 1988, the Republicans won every presidential election except 1976, when evangelical Jimmy Carter trumped Watergate-scarred Gerald Ford. Then in 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton thwarted his Republican opponents by running on “issues” like jobs, health care, and welfare reform. But in 2000, Bush successfully steered presidential politics back toward personality and character issues. In the wake of the Clinton scandals, independents warmed to Bush’s promise to “restore honor and dignity to the White House.” According to Voter News Service, the personal quality that mattered most to voters was “honesty.” Voters who chose “honesty” preferred Bush over Gore by over a margin of 5 to 1. An incredible 44 percent of Americans said the Clinton scandals were important to their vote. Of these, Bush reeled in three out of every four.
Can Bush still use the character issue six years after the Lewinsky imbroglio? Indeed, it is Bush’s best hope of earning reelection. The war on terror has extended the shelf life of at least one character issue: leadership. In 2000, the character issue was the bastard child of the Lewinsky scandal – and it took the form of “honesty.” In 2004, the character issue is the proud son of the war of terror – and it takes the form of “leadership.” In 2000, Americans wanted a president they could trust. Today, they want a president who will lead.
According to public opinion polls, President Bush’s leadership scores are off the charts. According to a March 2004 CBS News/New York Times poll, 67 percent of Americans say Bush has “strong qualities of leadership.” When asked whether the terms “strong and decisive leader” and “patriotic” apply more to Bush or John Kerry, the president trounces his opponent by double-digit margins. These “leadership” scores are far more impressive than Kerry’s edge on jobs, health care, and Social Security. Especially in the wake of 9/11, “leadership” trumps “issues.”
The president’s team must make the 2004 election about leadership – Bush’s top strength among independents. In practice, this means reminding voters of 9/11 and Iraq’s liberation at every possible opportunity. Independents need to see Bush as the best man to lead America’s war on terrorism. They must see John Kerry as a weak, vacillating pretender to the throne.
It will be very tempting for Karl Rove and company to simply rerun the 1988 playbook and tar Kerry as a “liberal.” That would be a grievous error. Kerry is much more vulnerable on the leadership gap than he is on the liberal tag. In his political career, Senator Kerry has proven that he cannot safely lead America in its war against terrorism. Kerry can’t make up his mind or hold his ground on any issue. As a headline in Slate advised, “If you don’t like the Democratic nominee’s views, just wait a week.” His navigation of the Iraq issue has been inconsistent and laughable. On issues ranging from affirmative action to education to capital punishment, the Flipper has amply demonstrated that his votes are not determined by principle, but by sheer political expediency. Appearing to be weathervane would be a problem for any presidential candidate, but in a post-9/11 world, it is the kiss of death – provided, of course, that voters get the message.
If he is to win, President Bush cannot waste precious months stroking his touchy conservative base. He must sprint to the political center and court independents. Once planted in the middle of the road, Bush cannot run on issues. He’ll be flattened by a Democratic two-by-four. Rather, he must make character the voters’ top concern. The president must tout his leadership skills while deflating his opponent’s. It’s a simple strategy, but not an easy one. Conservative commentators will pan it as a sellout, while liberal pundits will whine that it’s superficial and divisive. Running a bold campaign like that will require, ahem, leadership.
Todd J. Weiner is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.