As Democrats met Thursday in Little Rock to open the Clinton Library and ponder what went wrong in 2004, Republican governors gathered in the Big Easy to celebrate what went right in an election that left the GOP with strengthened majorities in Washington and in the states and ambitions to go further.
Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman led the governors on an inside tour of the president's reelection campaign, arguing that President Bush had won his popular-vote majority by deepening his support among the GOP faithful while broadening his appeal among key swing constituencies, including Roman Catholics, Latinos and suburban women.
Bush has claimed a mandate from the election, in which he won 51 percent of the popular vote -- to John F. Kerry's 48 percent -- and 286 electoral votes. Mehlman noted that Bush is the first president since 1936 to win reelection while also expanding his party's majorities in the House and Senate. He said Bush won 81 percent of the nation's counties and improved his vote in 87 percent of the counties.
Mehlman, whom Bush has tapped to become chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, "Our strategy was to offer a big choice on the biggest issues of the day," citing terrorism, the economy and values as the pillars of that message.
But Mehlman also said another crucial strategy was the decision to try to tarnish Kerry with a series of attacks that began immediately after the Massachusetts senator effectively wrapped up the Democratic nomination in early March. "Defining John Kerry was one of the most important things I think we did in the spring," he said.
The Bush campaign developed what Mehlman described as "a very aggressive and very . . . different multimedia" strategy to disseminate its message, concluding that traditional media and major networks no longer have a monopoly on reaching voters.
The Bush campaign spent heavily on such nontraditional sources as national cable networks, African American and Christian radio, and Spanish-language media. The campaign bought local radio advertising adjacent to rush-hour traffic reports and beamed ads into health clubs with their own TV networks. "A lot of young families get information not at the 7 o'clock news but at their 7 o'clock workout before they go home," he said.
The other part of the Bush strategy was the campaign's ground game. Having lost the popular vote in 2000, the Bush team's goal was to eliminate the Democrats' traditional registration advantage, and for the first time, the percentage of Republicans equaled the percentage of Democrats on Election Day, each accounting for 37 percent of the electorate.
The campaign used new technology and business marketing strategies to find and identify potential Republican voters, some in heavily GOP precincts or counties, but many others in less obvious places. "If you drive a Volvo and you do yoga, you're pretty much a Democrat," Mehlman said. "And if you drive a Lincoln or a BMW and you own a gun, you're voting for George W. Bush."
Through systematic outreach in targeted states, the party found and registered 3.4 million new GOP voters. But the campaign also identified 7.4 million infrequent GOP voters and 10 million unaffiliated voters whom they hoped to persuade to support Bush.
Campaign volunteers then bombarded those 21 million voters with phone calls and personal visits. "You felt like you were in the old Chicago organization that Richard Daley used to run," Mehlman said, "because we ran for president in those places and among those people as if we were running for mayor."
On the final weekend of the campaign, the GOP cadres who knocked on an estimated 5 million doors included Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans and former White House speechwriter Peggy Noonan, Mehlman said.
Among swing constituencies, Bush won a majority of the Roman Catholic vote and more than 40 percent of the Latino vote, which Mehlman called "the single most important number that has come out of the election." Future Republican majorities will depend in part on the party's ability to expand its support among Hispanic voters, and 2004 may have been a significant step in that direction if GOP candidates can build on it.
In between golf games, skeet shooting and other recreational activities, the GOP governors toasted several new governors who won in previously Democratic states: Missouri's Matt Blunt, Indiana's Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. and Washington state's Dino Rossi, who faces an automatic recount. If Rossi's victory holds, Republicans will control 29 governorships, a net gain of one.