The Deepening Divide
With President Bush winning the first popular vote majority in 16 years over Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, but adding almost no new states to his column since 2000, the 2004 election has revealed a political landscape that remains deeply, and almost immovably, divided – but one in which Republicans now seem to hold a clear upper hand.
After living through the longest and most expensive campaign in U.S. history, played out against the backdrop of war and uncertainty, the vast majority of Americans wound up coming down exactly where they did four years ago, producing an electoral map that was almost unchanged from 2000. Bush held every state he won last time around, with the exception of New Hampshire. He ran up bigger vote totals among his base in the South, helping him to secure an overall popular vote win of more than three million votes.
In essence, Bush consolidated his hold on red America but made few inroads among swing voters or independents. His most significant gain came with Hispanics, among whom he won more than 40 percent of the vote.
But for Democrats, the discouraging reality is that Bush's base now seems to outnumber theirs – allowing Republicans to not only win the White House once more, but expand their majorities in the Senate and House, while raising serious questions about the message and the future direction of the Democratic Party.
"Clearly the country is still divided," says Democratic strategist Steve Jarding. "But it seems it's a little less divided than it was in 2000. And for Democrats, it's going in the wrong direction."
To some extent, the relatively close outcome reflects the risks for both parties of a base-mobilization strategy that looks first and foremost to drive up turnout among partisan supporters. Although the tactic has clearly worked better for Republicans than Democrats of late, it could leave even the GOP without much obvious room to grow in the future. Jarding argues this election may have pushed the Republican Party even further to the right, ideologically, with several far-right Senate candidates winning seats.
Some Republicans say that, despite winning a bigger mandate than he did in 2000, Bush now needs to try to reach out to the middle in his second term.
"Bush needs to start thinking about his place in history as a uniter, not a divider," says Republican strategist Scott Reed. "It can't be a go-it-alone-and-we'll-follow strategy anymore."
But the challenge for the Democrats looms even larger. Analysts note that the party has effectively been shut out of an entire region – the South – and among rural voters in general, largely because of cultural issues. Although Kerry made some attempts to bridge this divide, going on hunting trips, for example, he made no obvious headway in culturally conservative states like West Virginia and Arkansas, which were once considered battlegrounds, losing there by a sizable margin.
"Democrats need to think about their message, and what they can do to broaden the appeal of that message," says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University.
Both candidates performed well among their respective bases, with Bush carrying white men and regular churchgoers, and Kerry winning strong support among African Americans, as well as winning women.
Similarly, the ground game seemed to come out as a near-draw, with the relatively high turnout not giving either side a clear edge – though Kerry was expected to hold an advantage in that respect. Turnout was estimated at 112 million, higher than in 2000, but not quite as high as some earlier predictions had held. Notably, Kerry failed to generate a discernible surge in turnout among young voters, who were once seen as a possible hidden source of support: Only 10 percent of voters were aged 18-24, though they backed Kerry by roughly 10 points.
Bush drew support from three-quarters of evangelicals, who made up one-fifth of the electorate.
Voters were sharply split on a variety of issues, from the Iraq war to the economy to gay marriage.
Significantly, many of Kerry's voters were primarily motivated by opposition to Bush, rather than by strong enthusiasm for their own candidate – suggesting that anger may not have proved the motivating force many Democrats once believed it would be.
To some observers, Bush's victory was all the more striking as it came on the heels of a string of bad news, from violence and missing explosives in Iraq to high oil prices and the flu vaccine shortage. With a majority of voters believing the country was headed in the wrong direction, the challenge for Bush was to persuade enough of those voters that a change in leadership was too big a risk – something he did by pounding on Kerry as a flip-flopper who was soft on defense.
"What [the Bush campaign] did so effectively was make Kerry seem like an unacceptable alternative," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas.
Kerry also struggled to connect with voters on a personal level, never managing to turn dissatisfaction with Bush's policies into a clear majority of support for his candidacy.
But others argue that Kerry actually faced an enormous challenge in running against an incumbent president during wartime – and point out that the senator managed to come extremely close to winning. And given the country's intense polarization, the outcome may have hinged less on what either campaign did than on national conditions and which side was ultimately more motivated.
"Kerry did about as well as the Democrats could have hoped," says Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. "I'm not sure either candidate could have done much more than they did to change the course of the election."
Amanda Paulson contributed from Columbus, Ohio.