Two years ago, the strategists of President Bush's reelection campaign had a theory that the 2004 race would not be determined by such familiar polling measures as what percent of the electorate thought the country was "on the right track" or felt that they personally were "better off than four years ago" or whether the headlines in the final weeks before voting were good or bad.
"Because the electorate is more polarized now, people are more likely to vote on what they believe about issues," said Ken Mehlman, the Bush-Cheney campaign's victorious campaign manager. Many past reelection campaigns were "how're you doing" elections -- with people voting on how they perceived their self-interest. "People now vote much more on their values."
Among Democrat John F. Kerry's strategists yesterday, there was both shock and admiration about how right this insight proved to be. Bush won a second term, there was general agreement yesterday, with a wave of support among conservative Republicans and like-minded independents on the issues of security against terrorism and cultural issues, including opposition to same-sex marriage.
One Kerry strategist who was less surprised was pollster Stan Greenberg, who had been warning of the difficulty of reaching rural voters and older white women. Many of these people agreed with Kerry on health care, the economy and Iraq -- but "the cultural polarization was too tough -- we could not break through," he said. Kerry aides acknowledged that the senator's personality and perceived values did not resonate with these voters, a fact exacerbated by Bush's attacks.
Bush's 51 percent victory also vindicated the Republican's theory that in the current environment, appeals that resonate with the GOP base are not necessarily so different than those that would move swing voters out of the Democratic column.
This belief contradicted long-standing wisdom among Democrats, who had felt certain that in pursuing a more partisan governing strategy, the incumbent was isolating himself and forsaking opportunities to craft a centrist majority. In contrast to rotating strategies and advisers in Kerry's camp, Bush and his political lieutenants, including Mehlman and White House senior adviser Karl Rove, pursued their strategy with unwavering discipline, even as polling numbers ebbed and flowed. On Tuesday, Bush was the first victor since 1988 to command a popular vote majority.
Exit polls highlighted a series of small but critical defections that devastated Kerry. The most important was the support Bush drew among 48 percent of women voters -- five percentage points greater than what he won against Al Gore. Among Hispanics, an important bloc in Florida and several southwestern states that typically votes for Democrats, Bush increased his performance by seven points.
In Ohio, the state where Kerry's best hope for ousting Bush foundered, the Massachusetts senator succeeded in increasing the Democratic base vote in Cleveland, which is historically the key for a Democrat to carry the state. But Bush prevailed even so, by increasing in even larger numbers his performance on historically Republican turf. These places include suburban "collar counties" as well as rural counties, where Bush won so big four years ago.
The results appeared to validate several of the pet theories of Rove, including his belief that politics is as much science as art. Presidential stops in swing states, and the route of campaign bus trips, rarely included the largest cities. That was because Rove chose them scientifically, using three criteria that he explained to reporters in the waning days of the campaign.
Rove said his targets were areas where Bush had underperformed in 2000, whether Republican or Democratic, and where the campaign's target for votes was higher than the number that showed up. Second were fast-growing exurban areas or Republican places where there were a large number of people who ought to register to vote and do not -- what Rove calls "a large gap between participation and potential." Third, he said, he paid attention to areas "that have a significant number of swing voters, and swing wildly from election to election."
These results highlighted the Republican victory -- in Ohio and elsewhere -- in this year's clash of turnout. Both Bush and liberal independent groups such as America Coming Together had assembled unprecedented organizations aimed at registering new voters and turning them out at the polls. Democrats had long assumed that, on balance, these operations would benefit their party, since it was generally believed that Republicans normally come closer to their peak turnout, whereas many natural Democratic supporters often do not bother to vote.
This was wrong. On the evidence, there seem to be plenty of "soft" Republican voters who can be prodded to the polls with extra effort, and with appeals on issues that resonate with them. In Ohio and other states, an important one of these issues was evidently a referendum on a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which passed easily.
Of the turnout operations on the other side, Ralph Reed of the Bush campaign said: "I assume they were out there and did their job and got their vote out. But we got our vote out, too, and we did our job better than they did their job."
Mark Penn, a Democratic pollster not connected with Kerry's campaign, said Bush may have had the easier job in voter mobilization. As the debate was framed in the closing weeks, it was a choice between "values and security, versus the economy and Iraq." Middle-age voters gravitated to Bush, while younger antiwar voters gravitated to Kerry. The problem, Penn speculated, was that these older people were more likely to vote. "You probably have to register two new voters for every middle-aged, middle-class voter that you energize," he said.
Mehlman said he was under no doubts that his turnout operation would work better, because it had been subject to elaborate testing and refinement, including in the 2002 midterm elections. "You can't replicate four years in four months," he said.
In addition, he noted, the GOP's network was based on neighborhood volunteers, not paid canvassers, as some of the independent groups used: "It needs to be personal. It needs to be credible. A fellow member of your church or your PTA is more credible than a stranger at your door."