The votes were barely counted on election night when the national media began interpreting the Republican victory. Within hours, a consensus had emerged: George W. Bush and Republican Senate and House candidates had (alas) won, but their success was tainted. The GOP trifecta was another sign of the extreme polarization and growing bitterness of American politics. The "red states" and "blue states" stared at each other across a cultural abyss, a "values" divide that pitted the cosmopolitan coasts and big cities against the nation's more conservative heartland.
This interpretation seems plausible, at first. The tone of the campaign, while mild in comparison to the campaigns of 1800 and 1864, for example, was as shrill as any in recent memory, thanks in no small part to George Soros and Michael Moore. The dramatic rise in voter turnout helped signal the election's contentiousness. Moral values were called the most important issue by 22% of voters, more than any other single category (though terrorism and Iraq together were cited by 34%). Indeed, one of the greatest voting divides measured by demographic category was between those who attend church regularly and those who do not.
When all was said and done, the red state-blue state divide of 2000 seemed more entrenched than ever. Of the 30 states that had voted for George Bush in 2000, 29 voted for him again in 2004. Of the 21 states (including the District of Columbia) that voted for Al Gore in 2000, 19 voted for John Kerry in 2004. Only three states shifted, and these shifts had the effect of rationalizing the map of 2000. The one island of red (New Hampshire) in a sea of northeastern blue was eliminated; the one island of blue (New Mexico) in an otherwise red Rocky Mountain west was likewise extinguished, and Iowa's reversal from blue to red simply expanded the size of the red zone and smoothed out the border between the two regions.
Nor was George Bush's 51-48% win, with 286 electoral votes, particularly impressive by historical standards. He beat the odds that say that incumbent presidents either win big, or do not win. One would have to go back to the presidential election of 1916 to find an incumbent winning with such a narrow margin.
Closing the Gap
Despite the conventional wisdom, however, there are many reasons to believe that 2004 was more significant than Democrats or much of the media were willing to admit.
First, as many commentators pointed out, Bush's 51% was not an inconsiderable achievement in a country that had failed to produce a popular presidential majority for any candidate since 1988. Furthermore, the president had modest coattails in the House and more substantial coattails in the Senate. Given its lack of competitive districts, a small gain in the House is all that most presidential winners can now expect. By way of comparison, Bush lost 2 seats in the House and 4 seats in the Senate in 2000 (including seats in Missouri and Georgia); Clinton gained back only 9 House seats in 1996 (after losing 53 in 1994) and lost 2 Senate seats; in 1992, Clinton's Democrats actually lost 10 House seats; and George H.W. Bush lost 3 House seats when he was elected in 1988. Even Ronald Reagan, when he won 49 states in his 1984 landslide, gained only 14 House seats while losing 2 in the Senate. The numbers were not big, but 2004 was a comprehensive party victory of the sort we have not seen since 1980.
Perhaps more importantly, a closer examination of the voting data shows decreased, not increased, polarization. If 2004 had been a really polarizing election, one would expect that Bush's vote percentages would go up in the red states compared with 2000, but that they would go down in the blue states. But this is not what happened. A comparison of the Bush vote in 2000 with his vote in 2004 shows that in the 29 red states, he gained an average of 3.3 percentage points. In the 19 blue states, he gained an average of 3.0 percentage points. (In the three switchers, he gained an average of 1.7%.)
Bush gained big in reliably liberal bastions like Hawaii (+8 percentage points), Rhode Island (+7), Connecticut and New Jersey (+6), New York (+5), and Massachusetts (+4). Altogether, he improved his vote proportion in 48 states—of which only 5 improved by less than 1%. His vote share dipped in only two states, one very blue (Vermont, where he fell from 40.7 to 38.9%) and one very red (South Dakota, from 60.3 to 59.9%). An examination of voters by type of community shows that Bush's biggest gain by far was among big-city dwellers (+13 percentage points), while his suburban and rural support remained stable. He made bigger gains among women than among men, bigger gains among Hispanics than among non-Hispanic whites, bigger gains among Jews and Catholics than among Protestants, bigger gains among rare church-goers than frequent church-goers, bigger gains among non-gun owners than among gun owners. In short, Bush did extraordinarily well in his base, but his gains came primarily from the Democratic base and those in the middle. The only reason he did not win more blue states was that he started off in them so far behind.These observations open up a new possibility, one so contrary to the conventional wisdom that it might be pronounced heretical by the high priests of the New York Times. Perhaps the polarization that grew through the 1990s peaked in 2000—and actually began to recede in 2004. At the very least, it must be acknowledged that George W. Bush gained across the board, in virtually every region and every demographic group.
Given this picture, it is not unreasonable to ask again whether we are in the midst of a Republican realignment. To begin with, one can conduct the simple exercise of comparing today's Republican dominance of governmental institutions with, say, the situation in early 1968, when Democrats controlled the presidency, both houses of Congress, and an overwhelming majority of state legislatures. Clearly, something fundamental has changed. Contrary to Democratic hopes, 1968 and 1980 were not flukes; 1994 was not a fluke; and now, for the first time, Republicans have put together the full package.
Another way of looking at this question is to think about the disadvantages of each side this year—that is, the weaknesses that each candidate had to overcome in order to win.
Bush faced numerous obstacles. First, he started in a weak position due to the controversy surrounding the 2000 election. His opponents were bitter and well-organized. No president elected in similarly contentious circumstances—John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888—managed to get reelected.
Furthermore, events worked against Bush. The economy, though much stronger than in 1992 or 1980, years when incumbents were defeated, still presented a mixed picture. Ominously, key states like Ohio had suffered from a heavy loss of manufacturing jobs. Regardless of the objective economic data, Americans were not upbeat about the
Then there was the war in Iraq, which began as a brilliant military success but quickly became bogged down; the terrorists managed to inflict a slow but steady stream of U.S. casualties. Indeed, the whole rationale for the war was called into question when the United States failed to find stockpiles of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Between Iraq and economic concerns, Bush's job approval rating fell below 50% for most of the half-year prior to the election, and was never far above it.
During the fall campaign, the president was besieged by bad news that might have cost him reelection. The October jobs report showed an increase of 96,000 jobs, a rate not fast enough to keep up with growth in the labor force (three days after the election, the numbers for August and September were revised upward by more than 100,000). Violence escalated in Iraq, at the same time Charles Duelfer released his report concluding decisively that Saddam had ended his WMD program after the first Gulf War in 1991. Oil prices spiked above $50 a barrel, leading to a sharp rise in gasoline prices at the pump. A flu vaccine shortage exacerbated national concerns about health care. The media played up a questionable last-minute story about missing explosives in Iraq.
Not only did bad news pile up, but the mainstream media piled on. It is difficult to think of a recent election in which the mainstream media was so uniformly, so vehemently, and so transparently working for one candidate and against the other. From CBS's forged Air National Guard documents, to ABC news chief Mark Halperin's admonition not to hold Kerry as accountable as Bush, to the last-minute explosives story, the mainstream media reverted to the 19th-century model of a partisan press. Virtually no negative stories about Kerry were ever pursued. Instead, a great deal of media energy was exerted providing cover for Kerry whenever a bad story threatened to break through. The Duelfer Report actually contained quite a bit of exoneration for Bush, not least in the revelation that Saddam intended to resume his WMD program as soon as sanctions collapsed—an event that was imminent—but this news was systematically de-emphasized. Newsweek editor Evan Thomas judged, over the summer, that all told, most journalists were working for Kerry and that their support was worth 15 percentage points on Election Day (a figure he later revised to "maybe" 5 points, when it was clear Kerry was not pulling away).
And, of course, Bush had to overcome the consequences of his own mistakes. Two stand out as potentially crucial. One was the decision in April 2004 to pull back instead of crushing the insurgents in Fallujah, a choice for which Bush, and the men in the field, paid dearly for the next seven months. The other was the decision, against his better political and constitutional judgment, to sign the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill. The massive and relentless attacks launched against Bush by advocacy groups (the so-called 527s), and the lack of a Republican response until late in the game, had their genesis in McCain-Feingold.
Yet despite all of this, Bush won.
Kerry also faced disadvantages. He began the campaign with little hope of significantly cracking the Republican base in the South and non-coastal West. This meant that Bush was free to poach in places like New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (and, of course, Iowa and New Mexico). Kerry therefore had to play defense on his own turf for a large part of the campaign, and had to hope that he could capture the few red states that were in play.
Kerry faced this situation because he was—as Republicans never tired of pointing out—a Massachusetts liberal. Though many Democrats would later complain that Kerry erred by allowing the GOP to define him, this line of thinking ignores the fact the Kerry had spent three decades in public life defining himself. This is why he could not talk about his record in the Senate, which would normally form the centerpiece of any candidate's campaign. And it was why he could not compete in large swaths of the country.
In the end, the challenger was without issues, despite the bad news and the media's help. Whatever its problems, the economy was doing well enough that most academic election models were able to predict Bush's win. At any rate, there was never much prospect that Kerry could do better than fight Bush to a draw on the economy, given actual conditions. In the states Kerry had to win—like Ohio, Missouri, Florida, and West Virginia—he was simply on the wrong side of the social issues. And Bush possessed and maintained a significant edge on national security, even including Iraq.
Kerry's disadvantage in this area owed much to Bush's demonstrated strength, but also owed more than a little to Kerry's own record, the record of his party for the last 30 years, and his lack of clarity on Iraq. Lest anyone think that a different Democratic candidate (other than Joseph Lieberman) would have done better on that score, it is important to remember that Kerry's desire to have it both ways was intimately connected with the division among Democratic voters—some of whom wanted out now and some of whom wanted the war prosecuted with greater efficiency. Any candidate would have faced the same dilemma, and most would have ended up where Kerry did: for the $87 billion, before being against it.
Finally, while Kerry was aided by the mainstream media, its aid was not as useful as it once would have been. The rise of alternative media, including cable television, talk radio, and the "blogosphere," meant that outlets like CBS had a watchdog. In 1968, the forged documents would likely have been accepted. In 2004, they were picked apart in a matter of hours. This change in the structure of the media turned out to be quite important.
Thus, Bush's disadvantages were primarily due to transient circumstances (perhaps a bit like Harry Truman in 1948), while Kerry's disadvantages were deeper and more structural (like Thomas Dewey's). This is no small clue that Republicans now hold the high cards, all other things being equal.
A Realigning Election?
If there has been a Republican realignment, though, it is not like classic realignments of the past. Perhaps, as David Mayhew argued in his book Electoral Realignments (2002), 1860 and 1932 were such extreme cases—revolving around civil war and the worst economic conditions in the nation's history—that they cannot serve as a realistic model. The Republicans may have demonstrated their strength in 2004—indeed, may have finally put all the pieces together—but the realignment started long ago. A "rolling realignment" is not a bad description, rolling through 1968, 1980, 1994, 2000, and 2002, the midterm elections that now appear as a foreshadowing of 2004.
A rolling realignment means, however, that this realignment could be closer to its end than its beginning. Democrats in 1964 saw an endless horizon of victory stretching out before them. Only now can we see that the New Deal alignment had actually reached its peak and was on the verge of a steep descent. That descent was, to some extent, unsurprising. The coalition was aging, new strains were developing, and most of the coalition's policy agenda had been achieved. On the other hand, there was nothing inevitable about the Democrats' collapse. On a pyre formed by Vietnam, the Great Society's overambitious schemes, the embrace of the counterculture and left-wing isolationism in 1972, and dozens of controversial court decisions openly celebrated by liberals, the Democrats slowly immolated themselves. Meanwhile, an energized and organized conservative movement was preparing to come to power.
Will 2004 be for Republicans what 1964 was for Democrats, a moment of triumph followed by a season of loss? Or will 2004 be, as Karl Rove has argued, another 1900, a close but broad victory that lays the foundation for a generation of dominance? Everything will depend on the choices Republicans make, the choices Democrats make, and the events that both will have to confront. If history is any guide, for Republicans hubris will be a more dangerous adversary than Harry Reid.