Terrorism, Gay Marriage, and Incumbency: Explaining the Republican Victory in the 2004 Election
Note: Alan Abramowitz' essay is posted here with the kind permission of The Forum: A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics. Please visit this excellent online journal, where Abramowitz' essay is now appearing, along with other essays by political scientists James Campbell, Barry Burden, Michael McDonald and Harold Bass, in their current issue on "Post-Election 2004". Access to articles is free, though a temporary guest registration is required.
In 2004, for the first time since 1928, a Republican President was reelected along with Republican majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives.President Bush’s margins in both the popular and the electoral vote were relatively narrow. Mr. Bush won 50.7 percent of the popular vote and 286 electoral votes to 48.3 percent of the popular vote and 252 electoral votes for his Democratic challenger, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Despite the closeness of the election, however, the fact that Mr. Bush was the first presidential candidate to win a majority of the popular vote since his father in 1988, the Republican gains in the Senate and House of Representatives, and a dramatic increase in voter turnout have fueled speculation that this was an extraordinary election with potentially long-lasting consequences for American politics.
Some conservative strategists and pundits have argued that the 2004 results may signal the beginning of an era of Republican domination of Congress and the presidency. Ken Mehlman, President Bush’s campaign manager and the incoming chairman of the Republican National Committee, recently claimed that, “The Republican Party is in a stronger position today than at any time since the Great Depression.”
According to Mehlman, “something fundamental and significant happened in this election that creates an opportunity” for the Republican Party to maintain and extend its gains in future elections (Harris 2004, p. A-1). According to Mehlman and other conservative commentators, George Bush’s victory in 2004, along with GOP gains in the House and Senate, were based on a successful two-pronged strategy: (1) emphasizing the need for strong leadership to counter the threat of terrorism, and (2) mobilizing millions of evangelical Christians and other culturally conservative voters upset about gay marriage, abortion, and other threats to traditional values. By aggressively pursuing the war on terrorism and by enacting policies such as a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage and additional restrictions on abortion, these conservatives now believe that President Bush and the Republican Congress can solidify the party’s newly expanded base and ensure GOP control of Congress and the White House for years to come. Some scholars appear to agree with this assessment. Walter Dean Burnham, one of the nation’s leading experts on past party realignments recently observed that, “If Republicans keep playing the religious card along with the terrorism card, this could last a long time” (Harris, p. A-1).
Of course, not everyone accepts the argument that 2004 was a realigning election. Liberal political analysts such as Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress, while acknowledging the significance of Republican victories in the presidential and congressional elections, tend to emphasize the limited nature of the GOP’s gains and attribute Bush’s reelection mainly to skillful use of advantage of incumbency in a time of war. According to Teixeira, “It’s hard to read [the results] in a serious way as a mandate for much of anything.” Similarly, according to political scientist Larry Bartels of Princeton University, support for the GOP by culturally conservative white voters in 2004 was consistent with their behavior in other recent elections and did not signal any major shift within the electorate (Harris, p. A-1).