John Kerry was not defeated by the religious right. He was beaten by moderates who went -- reluctantly in many cases -- for President Bush. This will be hard for many Democrats to take. It's easier to salve those wounds by demonizing religious conservatives. But in the 2004 election, Democrats left votes on the table that could have created a Kerry majority.
Consider these findings from the network exit polls: About 38 percent of those who thought abortion should be legal in most cases went to Bush. Bush got 22 percent from voters who favored gay marriage and 52 percent among those who favor civil unions. Bush even managed 16 percent among voters who thought the president paid more attention to the interests of large corporations than to those of "ordinary Americans." A third of the voters who favored a government more active in solving problems went to Bush.
True, 22 percent of the voters said that "moral values" were decisive in their choices. But 71 percent picked some other issue. All this means that Bush won not because there is a right-wing majority in the United States but because the president persuaded just enough of the nonconservative majority to go his way. Even with their increased numbers, conservatives still constitute only 34 percent of the electorate. The largest share of the American electorate (45 percent) calls itself moderate. The moderates went 54 to 45 percent for Kerry, good but not enough. And 21 percent of this year's voters -- bless them -- called themselves liberal.
These numbers do not lend themselves to a facile ideological analysis of what happened. The populist left can fairly ask why so many pro-government, anti-corporate voters backed Bush. The social liberals can ask why so many socially moderate and progressive voters stuck with the president. The centrist crowd can muse over the power of the terrorism issue. The exit polls found that perhaps 10 percent of Al Gore's 2000 voters switched to Bush. Of these, more than eight in 10 thought the war in Iraq was part of the war on terrorism.
Everyone should notice that the Bush campaign knew it could not win without moderates. When Karl Rove went after the red-hot right-wing vote, he did so largely through person-to-person contact, mailings and conservative talk-meisters. Bush always spoke in code to this group -- he talked of a "culture of life" far more than he did about abortion -- reducing the risk of turning off the middle.
Democrats have an unlimited capacity to declare that their party suffers from some deep intellectual dysfunction. The insistence that Democrats need "new ideas" is especially popular among think-tankers and columnists, a band I have a personal interest in keeping employed.
But Rove and Bush won this election on decidedly old strategies that had nothing to do with ideas. These included the attacks on John Kerry for being weak and the claim that Bush would be tougher on the bad guys. That's familiar, Cold War-era stuff. Gay marriage was a new issue, but opposing gay marriage is an old idea. Social Security privatization and tax cuts are old ideas, too.
Yet the Bush campaign was innovative in its analysis of the electorate. Its effort to increase the overall Republican share of the vote by boosting turnout in the outer suburbs and rural areas was a big deal. Democrats need to chip away at those Republican margins.
It can be done, and Colorado offers a fascinating laboratory. Kerry lost Colorado by 52 to 47 percent, close to the national margin. But Democrat Ken Salazar won his U.S. Senate race by 51 to 47.
Like Kerry, Salazar swept the traditionally Democratic areas of Denver and Boulder. But in western Colorado, Salazar's work on water issues and his standing as a farmer and rancher gave him reach into normally Republican constituencies. Kerry lost Mesa County, which includes Grand Junction, by 35 percentage points. Salazar lost Mesa by only 26. Salazar also ran ahead of Kerry in other western Colorado counties.
Democrats cannot leave current GOP margins in rural America and the outer suburbs uncontested. While it pains me to say so, it was hard for Kerry, as a Massachusetts liberal who was painted as an elitist, to equal Salazar's feat. On the other hand, Colorado Democrats last Tuesday took both houses of the legislature for the first time in 44 years.
Nothing should be allowed to diminish the importance of the huge turnout efforts made in base Democratic areas. But that organizing needs to be supplemented by a campaign to reach both social moderates and populists, many of whom live in those far suburbs and small towns.
Ours is not a right-wing country. An alternative majority is out there, waiting to be born.