(origninally published Nov. 10, 2004... a few days after the presidential election.)
I guess its time for all of us democrats to line up and each rant about losing the election. I have to tell you I have mixed feelings. Part of me just wants to ignore it, and forget for the moment that I am going to live the next four years of my life with Bush as my president. However, there is a part of me that is drawn to it because I want to understand what happened -- next time I want to win. So, I know there is saturation out there but I hope that what follows is sufficiently insightful and original to be worth the read.
If I had to describe what happened in this election in one sentence I would say, “things pretty much stayed the same.” All in all about 90% of people didn’t change the party they voted for in 2000. Thus in the broad sense this is accurate, things stayed the same. However of course in elections this close that small minority of voters who actually changed their minds is going to be the focus even if they represent a small minority. So even though the nation as a whole wasn't in a mood to switch parties, the question becomes, "Who were the people that did change their minds and why?" There are a couple of ‘conventional wisdom’ explanations for this, which of course will contain some truth, however it is important that we don’t simply accept the answer that we are most ready to accept. Instead lets look at the data rationally and see if we can’t actually get this answer right, and get it right early, so that were in good position for the next round.
Let me start this discussion by rejecting the most common explanation by saying I’m not sure that this election was won because the religious right came out and voted. I can however understand how this could be an explanation that people would easily accept. Liberals are confounded and angered by this segment of America, so when they are presented with an explanation for their defeat that portrays the religious right as their primary foil, the argument succeeds wonderfully. The argument is accepted at the other end of the spectrum as well because religious conservatives certainly enjoy being viewed as the political power behind the republicans. And finally everyone likes a personalized narrative and it plays into the whole “Carl Rove: Political Genius” storyline. Thus somewhat paradoxically, because it is easily accepted, this argument should be subjected to significant skepticism before it plays a central role in liberal political strategy.
Okay so we're a little skeptical of the conventional wisdom. Good. Now to find some answers lets go to the basics and look at some numbers. (Note: I’m only going to give rough numbers because their a bit easier to digest and remember and its always good to remember that polls come with margins of error, and further numbers fluctuate all the time). First its true 20% listed as ‘moral values’ as the most important issue. I have to admit this number blows me away. We’ve got a stagnant economy, deficits both budget and trade at 5% of GDP, we are at war, and millions of Americans are without healthcare. Did I miss something? Do gay people have a secret alliance with Bin Laden or something?
As shocking as this number is to some, the question is does this really represent a shift in the electorate? There is evidence that says no. First as a rebuttal to the theory that the 'missing conservatives of 2000,' targeted by Rove actually turned out, a majority of first time voters actually voted for Kerry. Next, relative to 2000, Bush gained 1% of amongst voters who attend church weekly, but gained 5% of amongst voters who didn’t (which are roughly equal sized portions of the electorate). Bush's strongest gains were not among the very religious.
Finally, 20% voters identified terrorism at the most important issue and 85% of these voted for Bush, however 15% identified Iraq as the most important issue and 75% voted for Kerry. Obviously, neither of these issues existed in 2000 thus both are by definition ‘shifts’ in the electorate – or are they? There is certainly a possibility that Republicans who would have voted for Bush anyway simply say ‘terrorism’ and vote the way they always voted and Democrats say ‘Iraq’ and do the same; I would bet that this is mostly true however that is not to say that there wasn’t necessarily strong movement (i.e. 10% or so) of voters who changed parties because of one of these issues, I would argue that it was movement among this group, the 'war and peace voters,' that tilted the election to Bush.
So where does that leave us? More detailed analysis needs to be done by people with access to more extensive data that can be more carefully analyzed, though we can being to see the broad brushstrokes of why Bush won. To reiterate, it is safe to assume that gay marriage and abortion and other ‘moral values’ issues certainly were important in keeping the Christian right voting republican (this block certainly didn’t dampen in their enthusiasm for Bush), but a more likely explanation for why Bush won the popular vote in this election when he didn’t before is because there was (and probably still is) some rally round the flag effects of 9/11, which was beautifully used and emphasized by the Republicans. Thus the key block of voters in my mind is the group that didn’t vote for Bush in 2000 but in 2004 wanted to support the president as he 'struck back' against the terrorists. (Of course whether he was successfully doing so is a matter of debate in which I'm inclined to say that the administration isn't being successful.)
Again, even if this was indeed the reason that Bush won the election, I think we shouldn’t loose sight of the fact that these people who changed their mind are in a vast minority, 90% of America didn’t change their party in the last 4 years.
So what are the lessons to be learned from all this? I would say that Democrats need to make sure that they don't let the republicans corner the nationalism market, i.e. we need to be seen as the more 'American' of the two parties, which certainly is not an easy task to do for us, especially if we don't want to do it in a vacuous 'flight-suit' sort of way. Which is the way it will have to be done because I don’t think Democrats could out 'lapel pin' the Republicans. Just to through out a raw idea, how about a 'diverso-nationalism' a type of pride in the place where anyone can belong. How about a Richardson-Obama ticket? Pretty sweet hunh?
Finally, it certainly seems that the nation is permanently crystallizing, with the Northeast and West Coast blue and the south and plains red, leaving the Midwest as swing America. And as things are fairly deadlocked right now so I wouldn't be surprised if this was the narrative to 2008. But as we think about what things might look like deeper into the future lets remember a historical anecdote. Jimmy Carter won Georgia against Ronald Regan. I know Carter was from Georgia and all but I mean this is Jimmy "let’s negotiate with the terrorists" Carter getting a 10% victory against Ronald "kill ‘em all" Regan in the deep south. We must keep our minds open to all the political possibilities as we move forward. Who knows what things are going to be like once neither candidate can claim to have stood in the rubble of the twin towers vowing revenge? That said, we need a to start thinking about victory in 2030 as well as in 2006.