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Election Reflections

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2004; 9:06 AM

How and why did President Bush and the Republicans do so well in Tuesday's elections? I've jotted down a few quick thoughts on what, in my opinion, led to the GOP's 2004 victories. While the topics and issues I've chosen obviously will be more extensively reported and debated in the coming days and weeks, and some of my opinions may later prove to be unfounded, here are my initial reactions:

1. Iraq. Sen. John F. Kerry was unable to effectively make the situation in Iraq the issue that defined the election. If you look at the exit polls, it is clear that Bush was reelected not because of, but in spite of, Iraq. About 55 percent of voters said the war had not made us safer, and the vast majority of them voted for Kerry. And even though Iraq dominated the news this year, it didn't destroy Bush politically. Why?

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After voting for the war resolution, Kerry began the primaries justifying his vote to a highly skeptical Democratic base. In doing so, he entered the general election unable to offer a stark, easily understandable contrast to the president on the issue. The Bush folks adroitly recognized the box Kerry was in.

The Iraq issue ultimately complicated Kerry's ability to criticize the president. If Kerry maintained his position that going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do, he ceded the issue to Bush. If he argued that it was the wrong thing to do, it left him open to criticism that he was inconsistent and lacked conviction. While Kerry argued throughout the summer that Bush bungled the after-war planning, it was not until the Democratic Convention that he began to suggest that Bush had misled the nation into war. By then, both men had a war problem -- albeit each very different -- and the negatives canceled each other out.

2. Character and Integrity. Every Bush campaign boils down to the same thing: His strategists and organizers define Bush as the candidate of character and values and say his opponent lacks those traits. When Bush ran against Al Gore in 2000, he immediately sought to undermine the vice president's honesty by labeling him a "man who will say anything to get elected." In a brutal primary campaign against Sen. John McCain, Bush sought to undercut the senator's moral authority by tagging him as a man "who says one thing and does another." When he sought to oust Ann Richards in the 1994 Texas governor's race, he successfully tagged her as a liberal whose values were out of touch with the state's mainstream.

The moment it became clear that Kerry would be the Democratic nominee, the Bush campaign rolled out its mantra that Kerry was a "flip-flopper" -- and never relented. Kerry acted as if people wouldn't buy it, and he mostly ignored it until late-night comedians started telling flip-flop jokes in their routines. When this sort of character stereotype begins to pervade the pop culture ethos, it's almost impossible to shake.

Then along came the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and again Kerry let the story settle into the psyche of the electorate before he bothered to respond. At the Republican National Convention in New York, I ran into Paul Begala in CNN's guest room. He told me that a top Kerry campaign official said Bush would pay the price and Kerry would benefit by ignoring such charges because the Kerry camp's focus groups said "they don't like negative campaigning." But if there's one thing people dislike more than a bully, it's someone who won't fight back. Kerry allowed his enemies to define him before he could define himself. And in the end, that cost him.

3. Moral Values. It's the morality, stupid! While the punditocracy blathered on about the impact of the war in Iraq and the economy on the election, something else was happening: A broad portion of the electorate was fretting over what it saw as the moral decline of the country. It was an issue that few journalists talked or wrote about, yet exit polls show it was a top issue for Republican voters -- more important than the economy and more important than Iraq. Call it the guns, God and gays vote. Call it whatever you want, but moral-issues voters came out in droves and supported Bush and the Republicans.

Just look at an electoral map. The red states stretch across the South and cover nearly all of the nation's midsection. That red swath is representative of a set of values shared by conservative voters. It's apparent to me that the cultural divide has deepened even further than Democrats and the inside-the-Beltway crowd imagined.

It will be interested to see how the Democratic Party reacts. It can't easily fix the divide by compromising its positions on abortion, stem cell research and gay rights. When the GOP similarly found itself as the minority in an ideological wilderness, it didn't sell out, but instead found ways to present its ideas more effectively. Perhaps the next few years will lead to similar soul searching by the Democrats. Perhaps the party will come back stronger and more persuasive for the midterm elections in 2006 and the next presidential election in 2008. Only time will tell.

A few other things that mattered on election day:

• In an interview for my Political Players with Terry Neal series on Yahoo!, Bush campaign adviser Sharon Castillo predicted that Bush would get 40 percent of the Hispanic vote this year, up from the already healthy 35 percent in 2000. She was right. So was Bush chief strategist Matthew Dowd, who has been saying for years that Democrats will not be able to win presidential elections if Republicans can get that high a percentage of the Hispanic vote. There will be more reporting over the next few months about why this happened and how it made a difference. I look forward to reading it.

• Yes, participation of younger voters (18-30) was up in terms of sheer numbers. But as a percentage of the overall electorate, it remained about the same. Even as their votes went disproportionately for Kerry, they were countered by turnout spikes in other GOP-friendly demographics.

• Republicans will crow about what happened on Tuesday. And who says they shouldn't? Bush is the first candidate to win a clear majority in a presidential race since 1988, and Republican majorities in the House and Senate have expanded twice during his tenure. Perhaps it's time to re-examine the political orthodoxy that it's a 50-50 nation. For now, at least, it seems there's a slight conservative tilt.

At the same time, the GOP might want to avoid overconfidence. The electoral map is almost unchanged from 2000, and it's still a closely divided nation. Bush's second term promises to be just as tough as his first, with a restive insurgency in Iraq, record budget deficit projections, widespread dislike for Bush and his foreign policy in the international community and the looming specter of terrorism. Bush's approval rating hovers around 50 percent. Congress's approval rating is even lower. How the Republicans govern and legislate over the next four years will determine whether they have created an enduring majority or a brief shining moment.


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