A Post-Concession Reflection

Election '04

John Kerry has conceded. George W. Bush will have a second term. By consolidating their hold on the South, Republicans have added to their majorities in the House and Senate. What is clear is a fundamental failure of leadership.  In the midst of a war – with 9/11 still searing our consciousness – Bush's policies and politics have deepened the divisions in this country.

Bush won votes by wrapping himself in the flag and by summoning the passions of his evangelical base.  Conservative evangelicals supplied his volunteers, turned out in large numbers and voted overwhelmingly for Bush. 

Bush's Narrow Base

The president split the popular vote with Kerry, but the narrowness of his base is striking.  The majority of Bush's support – 88 percent – came from whites. He lost African Americans nine to one. Asians nearly two to one.  Efforts to woo Hispanics earned all of 40 percent of their votes. Only in the South did Bush win a majority – losing the popular vote in the East, the Midwest and the West.

Class mattered – even though Kerry was unable to sustain an economic message amid the barrages of the campaign.  According to exit polls, Bush lost majorities of all those making $50,000 and less – and won majorities of those making more than that.  His biggest margin came from those making more than $100,000.  His base remains the "haves and the have mores," as he famously put it.

The president won overwhelming majorities among those who considered the war on terrorism or morals the most important single issue. But, tellingly, he lost three-quarters of voters who considered Iraq the most important issue and three-quarters who thought the economy and jobs the most important. Kerry's candidacy was propelled by anti-war sentiment and economic discontent.  Kerry also won vast majorities of those who thought health care or education was the most important issue. 

Some argue that the strength of the president's evangelical base suggests America is headed toward a new era of prohibition and moral reaction.  But John Kerry was the most secular of candidates.  He championed science against the forces of moral reaction.  He stood clearly for liberal social issues from civil unions to women's right to choose.  He was a liberal senator from Massachusetts, as the president delighted in repeating. Kerry's campaign may mark the beginning of a reaction not by the right – but by the center and left against the forces of intolerance. 

Amid record turnout, the mobilization driven by progressive groups from Americans Coming Together to MoveOn.org to the AFL-CIO clearly transformed the race. First-time voters went for Kerry. Young voters went for Kerry. African American turnout was up dramatically. Union households sustained one-quarter of the electorate and voted in large majorities for Kerry. That mobilization won Pennsylvania and Michigan, drove the divide in Ohio and overcame the systematic Republican efforts at voter intimidation and suppression.

What's Next

Bush's victory will produce a second-term president with a mandate for little beyond patriotic and pious posturing.  A majority of Americans have shown that they oppose his war and have no interest in his domestic agenda.  When the offensive starts in Iraq and the casualties rise, his popularity will plummet.  Were he to try to privatize Social Security, move to a flat tax or weaken Medicare, his party will suffer.  When the dollar falls or the economy slows, burdened by debt and oil prices, a broad majority will express their buyers' remorse.

The independent energy and organization that drove the Kerry campaign must continue to build.  Its potential was demonstrated in this election.  The sophistication exhibited by groups like MoveOn.org, ACORN, U.S. Action, the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, Working America and many others provides the base for taking back the country – whether the White House is an ally or an enemy. 

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