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Thursday, November 04, 2004

Election Post-Mortem Part 1: Why Bush Won

    Posted by Adam Crouch

Well, it looks like my prediction was wrong. Kerry conceded gracefully, ruining my prediction of a protracted legal battle. Oh well. I'm more than happy to be wrong in a prediction of doom and gloom.

There are two questions now on the minds of people all around the world: "Why did Bush win?" and "What will his second term look like?"

This post today tackes the question of why Bush won. Next I will post about what a second Bush term may look like.

So why did Bush win?

Bush didn't win -- the Democrats lost. With Bush's dismal approval ratings, the presidency was definitely within the Democrats' grasp. But they blew it.

One key problem was that Kerry failed to articulate a clear vision. The charges of flip-flopping were effective because they hit home with what people were seeing from Kerry. Too much of his campaign seemed to focus on ad hoc attacks, without a clear theme, a clear vision of what a Kerry presidency would be like.

Part of the problem was Kerry's notoriously wordy and nuanced style. If you can't communicate your vision in a way people can understand, it's worthless. The real root of the problem, however, is that he didn't have a vision to articulate in the first place. His mantra was simply "I am not Bush." That doesn't cut it. It doesn't get people fired up about you. You need a vision that resonates with people, that stands independently, regardless of who your opponent is.

This isn't a new revelation. The left-wing of the Democratic party has been complaining about this since Gore's loss. They believe that the party is being too centrist, and that centrism precludes a bold vision by its very nature.

That is absolutely baseless. People are inspired by visions that fit with their beliefs and values. The people who want the Democrats to move left are more radical, so of course they get more excited by radical positions. But the key is getting the middle-of-the-road people on board. If a campaign fires up its base but turns off centrist swing voters, it will fail. A candidate has to fire up the swing voters, and in order to do that, his vision has to be palatable. Their argument basically boils down to claiming that only extreme positions can be bold. That's clearly false. Bill Clinton is a perfect example. He made waves by proposing to "end welfare as we know it". His version of welfare reform was a very big change from the status quo, but it was neither far left nor far right in nature. Bill Clinton was one of the most successful Democratic politicians in a generation, because he was able to take centrist positions and present them in a compelling and inspiring manner. He proved that you can have big ideas that are also centrist, and voters will love it. Both Gore and Kerry took centrist positions, but did it in a muddy way, with only modest proposed changes to "business as usual", with no big ideas. Bush's Mars proposal may have been silly, but at least he was thinking big.

Instead the Democratic party just offered shrill attacks that probably turned off a number of voters. When one of the primary vehicles for getting your message out is full of wild conspiracy theories, it makes you look kind of nutty. This is expected from a party in opposition -- the Republicans during Clinton's presidency foamed at the mouth about Vince Foster and other crazy things. But I don't think anyone would argue that the Republicans benefited from being gripped by crackpot theories, and I don't think the Democrats did either. At the end of the day, if all you can offer is "I'm not the other guy", you're going to face an uphill battle. And saying "I spent 4 months in Vietnam 30 years ago" isn't going to cut it.

Vision aside, the voters did seem to detect a significant difference between the candidates' stances on the issues. Here is some interesting polling data from CNN. It shows people's answers to the question of "what is the most important issue in this election?". It also shows the voteshare among people who felt that a particular issue was the most important.

Most Important IssueBushKerry
Moral Values (22%)80%18%
Economy/Jobs (20%)18%80%
Terrorism (19%)86%14%
Iraq (15%)26%73%
Healthcare (8%)23%77%
Taxes (5%)57%43%
Education (4%)26%73%

One of the big things that jumps out at me there is the terrorism voteshare. There are two things that could be driving that: 1) Kerry failed to convince voters that care about terrorism that he is as strong on it as Bush; or 2) People who already support Bush tend to care more about terrorism. There's a subtle but important distinction there, in terms of how the causation is flowing. In #1 people are voting for Bush because they care about terrorism, in #2 people care about terrorism because they're voting for Bush (in other words, they're Republicans who would vote for Bush anyway for a whole host of reasons, and conservative pundits have convinced them that the terrorist threat is the most important issue). I think there's a bit of both going on, but it's #1 that is the bigger effect. Kerry certainly made a good attempt at winning people over on this issue, from saying Iraq was a distraction from Al Qaeda to talking about lax port security. At the end of the day though, I think the flip-flopper image that stuck to Kerry really hurt him here. Fighting terrorism, more than any of the other listed issues, really requires determination, strength, and decisiveness. His comments about terrorism being a nuisance certainly didn't help either. I'm guessing that among people that listed something other than terrorism as their primary concern, terrorism was still very high in their minds, probably as the #2 issue.

The other big takeaway from that table is that "moral issues" was number one. Why was this on top, even though it wasn't a big issue on the campaign trail? Because 11 states had constitutional amendments on the ballot to ban gay marriage. Even though it didn't get a lot of national press, this was a really hot issue at the local level. It was a huge boost to voter turnout among social conservatives. Newsflash: that's exactly why they were on the ballot. This really boosted the turnout of Bush's base, and the unfortunate reality is that one of the primary reasons Bush was re-elected was because of these referendums. Ohio's referendum passed by a large margin, and it's very reasonable to believe that Bush would have lost Ohio if it hadn't been on the ballot, even though Bush and Kerry had very similar positions on gay marriage. Hopefully he won't feel indebted to the social conservatives, but I'm not going to hold my breath on that.

Update: Paul Freedman examines the "moral values" matter in depth, and concludes that this issue is not what actually swung the election -- it was terrorism. Kevin Drum makes the case that the turnout impact of gay marriage was actually much smaller than we all thought -- regular churchgoers had similar voter turnout figures in 2004 as in 2000, and had similar levels of Bush support. These cases are pretty convincing -- it looks like the gay marriage issue may not in fact have a large component of Bush's win. Andrew Sullivan has more interesting statistics on this matter

So what is my recommendation for the Democratic party, to avoid a repeat in 2008?

Stay tuned for a post on what a second Bush term will likely look like

Further Reading
Kevin Drum: Great analysis of how Bush won - He says that it was actually the economy, more than terrorism or values, that won the election for Bush
NY Post: Bill Clinton on why Bush won - he makes the same point I did, that the Democrats need a vision
Donald Sensing: Navel Gazing - A Guide for Democrats
Armed Liberal: A Democratic Reformation

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