Lessons of the 2004 Election
Well, a second term for George W. Bush it is. Not a smashing victory for him: he took the popular vote by a 51-48 margin and gained two new states (IA and NM) by 50-49 margins, while losing one old state (NH) by a 50-49 margin.
What are the lessons Democrats can draw from Bush's victory? How was Bush able to hang onto power despite the poor economy, Iraq, the health care crisis and so on?
1. The limits of mobilization. Democrats put great stock in mobilization and the ground game. And Kerry did do better in many areas where there was intensive mobilization. For example, in Ohio, Kerry carried Franklin county (Columbus) by 41,000 votes, compared to Gore's margin of just 4,000 last election, and carried Cuyahoga county (Cleveland) by 218,000 voters, compared to Gore's margin of 166,000 in '00. But these gains were mostly cancelled out by Republican mobilization in conservative rural and exurban areas, so Ohio, in the end, was only slightly closer (2.5 percentage points) than it was in 2000 (3.5 points).
As another example, the exit polls indicate that 23 percent of voters this year were minorites, up from 19 percent in 2000. So Democrats were reasonably successful in getting minorities to the polls But these data indicate that hispanics only supported Kerry 53-44, a dramatic compression from Gore's 62-35 margin among the same group in 2000. And--much more consequential for the election--the exit polls say that Bush widened his margin among white voters to 17 points (58-41), up from a 12 point margin (54-42) in 2000. Weakened support among hispanics and, especially, a bigger deficit among whites (still 77 percent of voters) was more than enough to cancel out the effect of more minority voters going to the polls.
2. The limits of anti-Bushism. Kerry had much to say that was very critical of Bush and certainly there was much to criticize in the areas of the economy, tax cuts, Iraq, health care, energy policy and so on. These criticisms were directed at genuine weak points in Bush's record and there is good evidence that most voters shared at least some of these criticisms. Bush was not, and is not, a particularly popular incumbent, so attacking his record was an inevitable and important part of Kerry’s campaign.
The problem, however, was that Kerry never managed to convince many of the same voters who shared his criticisms of the Bush administration that he could and would do a better job in the areas he criticized. To cite just one example from the exit poll, voters were asked if they trusted Bush to handle the economy: 51 percent said no and 49 percent said yes. Not so good for an incumbent. But voters rated Kerry even worse: 53 percent said they didn’t trust him to handle the economy, compared to just 45 percent who said they did.
And all through the campaign, up to the very end, there was abundant evidence that voters did not think he had a clear plan for Iraq or, for that matter, for the country in general. His campaign was notable for lacking signature themes and proposals that typical voters could easily grasp and identify with. Does anyone seriously believe that many voters knew or understood Kerry’s plan for Iraq? For health care? For the economy? How many voters knew the one or two thematic phrases (if they existed) that summarized what John Kerry stood for?
Let’s face it: not many. I worried about this all through the campaign, but hoped, toward the end, that voters were interested enough in getting rid of Bush that they would cut him slack on these specifics. That did not turn out to be the case.
3. The need for white working class support. The last three elections (2000, 2002, 2004) have all had strong ‘culture war’ components that have severely depressed white working class support for Democrats. Recall that Bill Clinton actually carried the white working class (whites without a four year college degree) by a point in both his election bids. But in 2000, Al Gore lost these voters by 17 points; in 2002, Democratic congressional candidates lost this group by 18 points and this year, the situation appears to have worsened further. That is implied (though not proved) by the finding, cited above, that Democrats lost whites as a whole by 5 points more than 2000 and another exit poll finding that Democrats’ slippage by education group was concentrated entirely among the non-college educated. (Kerry split the college-educated evenly with Bush, just as Gore did in 2000, but, where Gore lost the non-college educated by just 2 (49-47), Kerry lost them by 6 (53-47).)
The fact of the matter is that Democrats cannot win when they do so badly among this very large constituency. John Judis and I always believed that the trends we described in The Emerging Democratic Majority could underpin a majority coalition given reasonable (not majoritarian, but competitive) performance among white working class voters. Alas, this does not qualify as reasonable performance.
Democrats’ difficulties with this group surely have a great deal to do with these voters’ sense of cultural alienation from the national Democratic party and its relatively cosmopolitan values around religion, family, guns and other social institutions/practices. Even the war on terror has increasingly become more a cultural issue linked to patriotism than a true foreign policy issue for many of these voters.
Given this sense of cultural alienation, it must be questioned whether candidates like Gore or Kerry can ever really be viable with these voters. Democrats may have to choose candidates in the future who do not so easily evoke this sense of cultural alienation and who can connect in a genuine fashion with these voters. I come to this conclusion reluctantly because I had hoped that an effective campaign could overcome this obstacle by, in effect, using wedge Democratic issues like health care or jobs to build support among this group. But the messenger appears to matter a great deal, just as having a message does (see point number two, above). The Democrats in the future will have to pay attention to both, I think.