Perhaps the consensus view of this election is that Karl Rove and the Republicans brought out huge numbers of right-wing evangelicals while the Democrats registered and brought out some -- but not enough -- liberal antiwar activists, young people and minorities.
While there is some truth to this analysis, it misses the bigger story of what happened. Two key groups -- Hispanics and married white women -- voted more strongly for Bush and are the reason he edged out Kerry. The hype of this election -- that it would be about a huge new youth turnout, or that it was all about the religious right -- was not borne out by the numbers.
While John Kerry lost the popular vote by 3.5 million, he lost Ohio by only 135,000 votes, and in Iowa and New Mexico he lost by fewer than 15,000. He energized his vote in key states so that he came within 200,000 votes of winning in the electoral college. Core Democrats turned out in record numbers in places such as Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
But unfortunately, conservatives outnumber liberals by 34 percent to 21 percent in this country, and Bush was able to compensate for Democratic turnout by bringing out conservatives in his key areas. This 13-point gap is the fundamental problem with letting any election be polarized on conservative or liberal grounds.
Ten million more voters went to the polls this year than in 2000, but the percentage of young people 18 to 29 who voted stayed exactly the same, at 17 percent, and the much-ballyhooed "cell phone" vote never materialized. On the other hand, the percentage of voters who attend church every week also stayed exactly the same -- 42 percent.
So if the election cannot be explained by a massive upsurge in evangelical voters, what really happened? In this election, Bush received 3.5 percent more of the vote than he did in 2000. The exit polls show this movement to be almost entirely the result of changes in two disparate groups: Hispanics (who went from 35 percent for Bush in 2000 to 44 percent this year -- enough to move the entire popular vote 1 percentage point) and white women (who went 49 percent for Bush in 2000 and 55 percent this year -- enough to move the popular vote 2.5 percentage points). It appears that the bulk of the movement in the white women's vote was among married women, particularly those with kids, who may have gone as high as 2 to 1 for Bush.
Hispanics don't fit into the caricature of Bush voters as gun-toting, Bible Belt Republicans, nor do these moms. While the Hispanics who voted for Bush are religious and more pro-life than the average voter, their central concerns tend to be about aspirations: the success of their families and children. The modern moms also have family values and the success and safety of their kids as their chief concerns.
These new Republican voters were solidly Democratic in 1996. Bill Clinton won 72 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1996; Kerry got 53 percent. Clinton not only won female voters overall, he also won white women (48 percent to Bob Dole's 43), married women (also 48 percent to 43) and moms (53 percent to 38). Unlike the unreachable evangelicals, these voters are not far removed from the values of the mainstream of the Democratic Party. They voted Democratic on the basis of balanced budgets, a fair immigration policy, expanded educational opportunities and greater protections for their kids from the dangers of tobacco and other marketing.
So while liberals and conservatives can be motivated and brought to the polls in increasing numbers, the real battle at the end of the day is for the more moderate voters who this year slipped away to the Republicans, on the basis not of gun control and gay marriage but of security and secular values such as trust and standing up for your beliefs. They are the core of any winning national coalition and at the heart of our national values. These voters have chosen Democrats in the past, and as the Democratic Party rebuilds, they are the first and most important voters we must attract to win a majority in 2008 and beyond.
The writer, who heads a Democratic polling firm, conducted polls for President Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign.