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Why Bush Won

‘Rolling Stone’ brings together three leading experts to discuss the numbers, what they really mean — and what happens next for the Democrats

U.S. President, George W. Bush, Marines, Camp Pendleton

U.S. President George W. Bush waves to Marines at Camp Pendleton, California on December 7th, 2004.

David McNew/Getty

It was an outcome that took even the president’s closest advisers by surprise. George W. Bush emerged from the election with fifty-one percent of the popular vote — the first outright majority for any presidential candidate since his father in 1988, and the first president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 to be re-elected while gaining seats in both the House and the Senate. To get away from the battle of the ideological elites and make sense of the election, Rolling Stone met with Ruy Teixeira and Peter Hart — two analysts deeply grounded in public-opinion research — and David Gergen, a man we consider one of the most dispassionate observers of modern political history.

Teixeira, a joint fellow at the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation, is co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority, selected as one of the best books of 2002 by The Economist. Hart, known for his nonpartisan poll for NBC and The Wall Street Journal, has conducted public-opinion research for thirty governors and forty U.S. senators, from Hubert Humphrey to Jay Rockefeller. Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, has served in the White House as an adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton.

Let’s start with the major factors in Bush’s victory.
RUY TEIXEIRA: If you want to look at ground zero of how Bush expanded his coalition, the key change from 2000 was that he did a lot better among white voters. His margin of victory among whites widened from twelve to seventeen points — and almost all of that was among white working-class women.

DAVID GERGEN: The decrease in the gender gap alone was enough to give him the victory. But he also increased his margin among Hispanics. And I don’t think there’s any doubt that in some key states, such as Ohio, he rallied his base through a strong organization and symbolic politics — especially the ban on gay marriage.

PETER HART: The other thing that’s really important to understand is the Mississippi River: Since 1912, whoever has won a plurality of states along the Mississippi has won the presidency. This year, a sense of Republicanism crept up the river. The president won Missouri — which was always a toss-up state — by more than seven percent. Iowa flipped in his direction, and in Minnesota and Wisconsin, we waited all night to find out that Kerry had just barely carried each of those states. In state legislatures, the story is even more dramatic: going from huge Democratic majorities in the Seventies to watching the GOP dominate in Missouri and Wisconsin. Only Illinois remains solidly in Democratic hands.

TEIXEIRA: I don’t think it’s quite as gruesome in some of the battleground states as Peter is portraying it. If you look at Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Democratic margin actually widened slightly. According to an analysis I did of Bush’s increased margin, about half of it came from solid red states — states that Bush won by six points or more in 2000. And about half of that increase came from just four states: Tennessee, Georgia, Texas and Alabama. Only a fifth of the increase in Bush’s margin came from the battleground states, and about half of that increase came just from Florida. So Bush actually made comparatively modest gains in the battleground states.

Nobody mentioned the Christian right. Karl Rove’s strategy was to turn out 4 million evangelicals who didn’t vote last time. Did he succeed in doing that?
TEIXEIRA: Because of the way exit polls were conducted this year, we can’t know exactly how much evangelical turnout went up.

HART: That’s right. But polls of likely voters indicate that it was up vastly — and that voters cared tremendously. We also know that half of all the votes that George Bush got this year came from people who go to religious services on a weekly basis. We’re not just talking about fundamentalists — we’re talking about Catholics, Jews, black Baptists, everyone.

GERGEN: What strikes me is that the Republicans are building a different sort of alliance system. For decades, Democrats have built alliances of voters through government programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Support from believers in those programs has enabled the Democrats to dominate national politics for a long time. The Republicans, in shrinking government, have increasingly turned to churches as away to build alliances and to do their recruiting in quiet ways; it often takes place below the radar screen of the media. That’s one of the reasons the election presented some surprises for us.

Are there places beyond churches that the Republicans are building alliances?
GERGEN: They’ve been highly successful at building alliances through the military. Not only the people who are in uniform now, but those who have worn a uniform in the past tend to rally to the Republicans in ways beyond what we would have seen, say, forty years ago. That’s become a reliable source of voting strength for them.

Did the ballot initiatives in eleven states banning same-sex marriage have an effect?
TEIXEIRA: It helped create an environment, nationally, that was favorable for the Republicans.

GERGEN: My impression is that the country was moving toward a much greater tolerance of gays — and, indeed, an embrace of alternative lifestyles — that went far beyond what we saw, say, twenty years ago. Many voters were perfectly happy in their communities with gays living next door. Had that been left undisturbed, we would have seen far more support for gay unions ten years from now. But the decisions to approve gay marriages in Massachusetts and San Francisco may have spurred voters to make a decision about the issue before they were ready.

HART: I would subscribe to exactly what David said. It was a tactical victory for the Republicans — I don’t think it should be interpreted as a referendum on the broader social and constitutional question. In periods of uncertainty and insecurity, the public reaches toward what is safe — and this is definitely a period of insecurity.

TEIXEIRA: That’s right. But as we go forward, younger voters are gradually going to move the country in the direction of greater acceptance of gay marriage — whether Karl Rove wants it or not.

Let’s talk about the youth vote. What happened with young voters?
TEIXEIRA:  One of the misperceptions about the election is that young people didn’t turn out. In fact, the number of voters under the age of thirty increased substantially. And they went for Kerry by nine points in an election in which the country as a whole went for the other side by three points. That’s the biggest difference between youth and the country as a whole that we’ve seen in the last four elections — even greater than in 1996, when Bill Clinton carried the youth by nineteen points and carried the country as a whole by eight points. I think there’s real potential there for the future.

So why are we hearing the youth vote put down by the media? Everyone says they didn’t turn out — they failed to elect John Kerry.
TEIXEIRA: Goodness gracious — they tried their best. To have actually won the election for Kerry, they would have had to vote for him by twenty-five points. So I don’t think you can blame it on the youth.

HART: Just the opposite. As Ruy suggests, the youth vote is a tremendous hope for the Democratic Party. I mean, here’s a group that in previous elections said, “It doesn’t make any difference.” This year, all of a sudden they said, “It makes a lot of difference — it’s important, and we care.” And they turned out — they were active and involved. The way in which youth were communicated to was also a lot wider and broader than before. For the youth, Jon Stewart and Comedy Central made a huge difference in defining an awful lot of the agenda in this election.

GERGEN: There’s another reason the youth vote should be encouraging for Democrats. When people enter the voting process and vote for two or three elections in a row for the same party, they tend to vote that way the rest of their lives. So this is a cohort that’s going to be more Democratic — and that should give hope to the Democrats as they look ahead.

So should Democrats emphasize the youth vote more as a strategy for the future?
TEIXEIRA: No. To rely on getting much more out of the youth vote would be foolish. If you want to solve the problem of why you lost this election, that’s probably not where you want to go. You want to go more toward the middle. You’ve got to figure out how to get back some of the Hispanic votes you lost, and, most important, how to shore up your support among whites of modest income and education.

GERGEN: I agree that the Democrats can’t rely upon the youth vote to increase much more as a way to win future elections. But they have to make the younger generation a foundational piece of their coalition. And that means that they’ve got to keep people mobilized and interested in the next four years. There’s going to be a tendency among some of the young to become cynical after this election — to throw up their hands and walk away from the process. Some of them have gone through enormous psychological pain at the end of this and would just as soon not think about it anymore. How you convince them that this is just one battle lost in a bigger war — in a longer war — is one of the primary challenges Democrats face. They have to keep the turnout up. Doing that, in itself, is going to be hard.

TEIXEIRA: The bigger question is: What do the Democrats stand for? Democrats in this election ran against Bush. Kerry’s program was never very clear to voters. They didn’t get where he was coming from. Democrats have to have large and good ideas that people can recognize — ideas voters can summarize in a couple of sentences.

GERGEN: There’s a tendency now for Democrats to say, “Who can we find to run next time? Should it be Hillary, or Evan Bayh, or XYZ?” I think that’s a terrible mistake — it’s a trap. It’s far more important, as Ruy just said, for them to focus on what their ideas are, and what they believe in, before they decide who should carry the banner. The conservative movement was first built around a series of ideas and principles — then they went out and found Reagan to ride that wave into the White House. The Democrats have got some soul-searching to do about what they believe in.

TEIXEIRA: We should keep a bit of perspective on this. The last three elections, the Democrats got, respectively, forty-nine, forty-eight and forty-eight percent of the vote. That’s not that far off a majority. I mean, you shift a point and a half of the vote and you’re just about there. They just need to figure out a way to put their natural constituencies, and growing constituencies, together with a more respectable performance among whites of moderate income. Democrats are not in the position that the Republicans were in after Goldwater was defeated in 1964.

GERGEN: I would argue the contrary. I think they may be in a more dangerous position. The Goldwater coalition was in a deep, deep hole. They were a distinct minority, but they could build from the ground up. The Democrats are in danger of sliding down. They haven’t won a majority of the white vote since 1964. They haven’t won fifty percent of the national vote since 1976. And in the last six congressional elections — starting with 1994 — they haven’t cracked 48.5 percent of the national vote. This is a party that needs to have some deep rethinking — not simply go out and turn a few dials.

HART: David’s right. To win, we need to build a coalition differently from before. It doesn’t mean selling out on the coalition that has helped to establish the Democratic Party. It means that if we look at this loss just as a small tactical loss, we’ll end up digging a deeper hole. The narrowness of the presidential loss hides the fact that the Republicans are the majority party in Congress; Democrats have a steep road ahead in both Congress and state legislatures.

We haven’t discussed the war on terrorism. Wasn’t the deck kind of stacked against Kerry — challenging an incumbent president during a time of terrible uncertainty?
HART: That certainly is key. I have no doubt in my mind: If there had not been the terrorism threat, George Bush would have lost this election, and lost it decisively. It enabled him to run as the war president. Voters felt it was about safety.

GERGEN: Peter is absolutely right. Prior to 9/11, George Bush was on the arc of a difficult presidency. He would have been a one-term president. The way he rose to the occasion during the weeks after 9/11 was what convinced voters that he would be the safer choice. He did not win because of Iraq — he won despite Iraq.

How much of this goes to Kerry’s inability to connect with voters?
HART: Kerry always thought it was about IQ. But it was really about “I like.” He never connected. I asked people, “What would it be like to have John Kerry as your next-door neighbor?” You know what they said? “High hedges” [laughter].

TEIXEIRA: Not a good sign.

What were Kerry’s strategic mistakes?
GERGEN: His biggest blunder was refusing to say that he would have changed his vote on Iraq had he known then what he knows now. That left him in a position of near incoherence on Iraq for several weeks and cost him precious time in trying to gain an advantage on Bush.

Having said that, I think it would be too easy for Democrats to say, “We lost because of some tactical mistakes Kerry made or because of his lack of likability.” Yes, he made some mistakes — but he also ran one heck of a good campaign. He won all three debates, which no challenger has ever done. He raised more money than any Democrat in history and made the Democrats more competitive financially than ever before. And he raised the number of votes at the final election. John Kerry didn’t lose this election; George Bush won it — and there’s a difference. Democrats would be deluding themselves if they said, “If we just get a better candidate, we’ll start winning all the time.” That’s why it goes back to the notion that they’ve got to re-examine their ideas — and whether they’ve got something fresh, interesting and compelling to offer the country.

TEIXEIRA: I agree with David that Kerry ran a solid campaign. But he never really managed to get his program across to the average voter. The Democratic program on the economy, on health care, on how to get out of Iraq — all these things were practically incomprehensible to voters. In one exit poll, voters were asked, “Do you trust Bush to handle the economy?” Fifty-one percent said no. That’s not so good for an incumbent president. But voters rated Kerry even worse — fifty-three percent said they didn’t trust him to run the economy. That means he never managed to get across what he would do, and how he would do it better.

HART: Ruy is right. Kerry kept talking about the plan, the plan, the plan, the plan — but the public never knew what the plan was. It would be equivalent to Martin Luther King Jr. saying, “I have a dream,” but never spelling out the dream that he went on to describe so vividly. I asked voters, “How much confidence do you have in Kerry making the right decisions on domestic issues?” Forty-one percent said a great deal or quite a bit of confidence. Then I asked the same question about George Bush — and the response was forty-one percent. I figured, God, if the Democrats can’t dominate on domestic issues, it’s because they never got the specifics across.

GERGEN: Bruce Reed wrote a very interesting piece in The Washington Post pointing out something I did not know. It suggests that we’re entering a new period of politics. Of the twenty-eight states with the lowest per-capita income, Bush carried twenty-six. In the past, we would all have assumed that low-income states would mostly go Democratic. The fact that their income status does not seem to be tied to how they vote is a major advance for Republicans — and something Democrats have to think a lot about. It’s conceivable that Republicans, in continuing to emphasize small government, may have left themselves in a position where Bush was not held as accountable for the loss of jobs, say, in Ohio as he would have been twenty years ago. That, to me, is a big change.

There is also an irony in this. Kerry won all the states with the highest per-capita income. States such as New York, with high per-capita incomes, are the ones that send more tax money to Washington and get less back than the rest of the country. So the Democrats win in blue states that are essentially for bigger government but that get less back from government, while Republicans win in red states that stand for smaller government and are getting more money from the government than they send in.

So you think the Republicans are now the party of the workingman?
GERGEN: To the degree that the Republican Party is discovering that you can reach out to lower-income working people, whose lives are in huge flux. As Peter was pointing out, those voters are looking for something beyond an economic boost. They don’t have much faith in government producing for them anymore, and they’re looking for security. And they find it in a wartime president, and in their cultural beliefs. They’re looking for anchors. The Republicans have learned how to reach out to those people and offer them some anchors — while Democrats find it harder to talk to them in those terms than they did in the past. There are some big shifts going on. The Republicans are not picking up the majority of working people, but they’re picking up significant chunks in rural America who would have voted Democratic twenty years ago. And that, for Democrats, has to be worrisome.

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