Record numbers of voters cast ballots this year, attracted by a clash of opposites won by President Bush because his Republican campaign made enough smart moves in critical states to offset Democratic challenger John F. Kerry's appeal among minority and youth voters, analysts said yesterday.
The Associated Press reported that 115.7 million Americans voted in Tuesday's presidential election, but millions of absentee and mail ballots still needed to be counted, along with provisional ballots that must be authenticated.
Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, estimated that the final total could approach 120 million, or 60 percent of the electorate, a higher percentage turnout than any election since the 1968 race in the middle of the Vietnam War.
Bush displayed dominance among his traditional supporters. Two-thirds of gun owners, more than three-fourths of evangelical Christians, and nearly three-fifths of veterans and active military personnel voted for Bush, according to exit polls. Those are similar percentages to the 2000 election, but analysts said the greater turnout this year drove Bush's totals even higher.
"Everyone knew it would be a high-interest election," said Latino voting expert Matt A. Barreto, a political science associate at the University of Southern California's Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. "But it was a little bit higher than we thought."
Many voting groups appeared to have made quantum leaps in participation, although the record balloting may not have produced the outcomes that the groups' principal advocates intended.
Barreto said that Latino voting nationwide appeared to have grown from 5.9 million in 2000 to 7.5 million or even 8 million, "the biggest bump we've ever had -- its never risen by more than 1 million" in a four-year cycle. But while Latinos voted Democratic in strong majorities, Bush may have cut into Kerry support in Florida and Nevada.
Black voters also saw their numbers surge at the polls, perhaps by as much as 25.7 percent, to 13.2 million voters. But, again, said senior political analyst David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Bush may have been the biggest beneficiary, seeing his support among black voters increase in several key states.
"It's clear that Bush and the Republicans benefited significantly from the ballot initiatives on gay marriage," Bositis said. He noted that Ohio, the campaign's key battleground state and one of 11 with an initiative to ban same-sex marriage, gave Bush 16 percent of the black vote, a gain of 9 percent over 2000.
And the number of voters younger than 30 grew to at least 20.9 million. The nonpartisan voter advocacy group Rock the Vote said the surge in young voters reversed a decline that had lasted more than three decades except for a spike in 1992.
Rock the Vote President Jehmu Greene credited young voters, who favored Kerry 54 percent to 44 percent nationally, "were largely responsible for keeping it a close race," and "delivered" Kerry the key battleground state of Pennsylvania, where 60 percent of young voters favored the challenger.
Despite these indications of the growing importance of discrete blocs of voters, analysts cautioned that their remarks were based on preliminary assessments of exit polls whose accuracy they questioned.
Figures used in this story are taken from national exit polls provided to The Washington Post and other news organizations, and from state exit polls collected for a consortium of news organizations and displayed on the CNN Web site.
Barreto said he doubted that Bush's support among Latinos nationally had risen from 35 percent in 2000 to 42 percent Tuesday, suggesting that the president's gains were overstated in Texas. He said pre-election polls had shown Kerry scoring in the "high sixties" in most states among Latinos, a statistic borne out in state exit polls elsewhere.
He acknowledged, however, that holding Kerry to 60 percent among Latinos in Nevada could have been critical in a state the president won by about 21,000 votes.
Analysts also suggested that increases in absolute numbers of voters may not presage a permanent upsurge of interest. Young voters, despite their increased numbers, made up 17 percent of 2004's total vote, unchanged from 2000:
"You've got to do more than just register them; you have to convince them that they have a reason to vote," said Rutgers University political scientist Jane Junn. "I think it's safe to say that [get out the vote efforts] didn't work as well as the Democrats would have wanted."
Finally, Republican Party operatives and independent analysts questioned exit polls showing that Bush had won only 56 percent of the Latino vote in Florida, traditionally dominated by conservative Miami-based Cuban Americans. Kerry had wanted to make inroads among newly arrived Puerto Ricans in central Florida, and exit polls suggested that he did.
Al Cardenas, a special adviser to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, said the reelection campaign consulted Jeb Bush early about "micro-targeting" state voting blocs. The GOP countered strong Democratic efforts to mobilize blacks with strong outreach efforts to Jewish voters and liberals in South Florida.
The key to winning support from central Florida's Hispanics, however, was probably former Housing and Urban Development secretary Mel R. Martinez, a former Orange County executive, choosing to run -- and ultimately win -- the race for senator.
"I think this is almost a tribute to the evil genius [presidential adviser]," Moreno said. Martinez "was a twofer -- a Hispanic American from the I-4 [Central Florida] corridor." When Jeb Bush saw the returns from Orange County, he said at a news conference yesterday, he picked up the phone to tell his brother he had won.