Why George Bush won the 2004 Presidential Election
The 2004 Presidential Election can be viewed in many, many different ways, and has been arguably over-analyzed. Though it lacked the drama and controversy of the 2000 Election, there has been a fair amount of discussion of voter fraud among other contentions. As with any election, ’04 had its share of memorable and historical moments. The list of “firsts” is notable: the internet was a major factor for the first time in history; it was the first time the son of a former president won re-election; new campaign laws changed the way campaigns were run with the creation of 527’s; and it was also the first time since 1988 that the victor had received over 50% of the popular vote (CNN Election Results). Most people view the election through the lens of party affiliation and 2004 was perhaps one of the most sharply divided elections in recent history. The campaign was a tough, bitter, acrimonious, and even hostile battle for the highest office in the country, and now, nearly three years after the dust settled, the question can be asked; why did George W. Bush win the election?
Karl Rove is perhaps the most brilliant campaign strategist in history. That is the argument made by many contemporary political scholars today. Whether or not this is true is debatable, but the proof is in the pudding; George W. Bush was elected in 2000 and re-elected in 2004. Democratic partisans may claim that to get Bush elected even once is a noteworthy feat, and Rove succeeded in doing it twice, but the issue is not all that important in the grand scheme of things. The more important question would be how Rove succeeded in getting this so-called stupid, bumbling, Texas hick elected to the most powerful office in the country. It’s a simple question with simple and yet not-so-simple answer. The simple answer as the old saying goes; Rove energized the base, and he was a micromanager of the campaign. But it takes a whole lot more than “energizing the base” to get a president elected.
Rove joined the Bush campaign before the 2000 Presidential primary by selling his business “Karl Rove + Co.” and taking the job of chief strategist for Bush's presidential bid (Wikipedia). For the 2004 election he assembled an elite team of the best political minds of the time: Matthew Dowd, campaign manager Ken Mehlman, White House Communication Director Dan Bartlett, and campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish to name a few of the names on Rove’s prestigious team (Newsweek and Thomas 30). These men and women worked to get the Republican base of social conservatives around the country, and especially in the Midwest and South, eager and willing to do anything necessary to keep the liberal Democrats out of office, but more importantly to elect George W. Bush. The success didn’t come about by happenstance. Bush had plenty of bad press, not only because of what he brought on himself, but because of bad news about the war and economy. Rove’s strategy to counteract this was not to run from the bad press; rather to welcome it and twist it in such as was as to help the President. This was exactly the case when Bob Woodward, reporter for the Washington Post, published a book entitled Plan of Attack, which could be interpreted as both attacking Bush and highlighting his qualities. Instead of allowing the book to bring down the President’s rating, the “Bushies” embraced the book and even placed it under “Suggested Reading” on the campaign’s website (Newsweek and Thomas 68). However, if the Kerry campaign and the liberal attacks kept coming, then the campaign would cease to be one of issues and would turn into a popularity contest. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Bush’s campaign was the balance it struck between an issue centered campaign and one of aggressiveness.
The issues of 2004 were not far different than other recent elections: healthcare, social security, the economy as a whole, education, the environment, abortion, and gay marriage all had places in the limelight of the election. Each is a very pointed concern and requires careful thought and planning to correctly identify and change the problem. But in 2004, two major issues that are closely related went hand-in-hand throughout the campaign to dominate the election; immigration and the war on terror. Zel Miller in a speech at a Hillsdale College dinner after the election asserted that the significance of the Bush re-election is that “America has renounced the worst lessons of the post-Vietnam era.” Since Vietnam most Democrats had fallen into the mindset that “America was always the problem.” (Miller) Bush and the Republicans on the other hand believed in the inherent goodness of America, and that we could use our powerful status to spread pro-democratic ideals throughout the world. To do this, Bush had developed the so-called “Bush Doctrine” during his first term, and it became a major point in the campaign. Again, Zel Miller sums the doctrine up eloquently:
Bush Doctrine means, first, that America will not hesitate to use force to stop terrorism. We will act, react, block and prevent it. Terrorism will no long be considered a social problem, a political statement or a criminal infraction. Instead it will be seen as an act of war… (Miller)
Indeed, the idea that Iraq was a breeding ground for terrorists and that we should do something to change it fueled the Bush campaign.
The immigration issue was related to this idea of national security by advancing the idea that a nation is only safe when its borders are being protected. In preceding decades immigrants from Mexico and other South American countries have grown substantially. Illegals pour into this country daily by the hundreds, and all it takes for our belief in national security to collapse is one of those illegal immigrants to be a terrorist, come across the border, and kill tens, hundreds, or thousands of Americans as happened on 9/11. The recent surge in Hispanics, coupled with a declining Caucasian population as a percentage of the whole, posed a problem for the Bush campaign. In 1960, whites accounted for 90 percent of the population. Today, it is 67 percent (Buchanan 52). The vast majority of Hispanics tend to vote Democratic, and the Bush campaign had to tread a delicate line of wooing as many potential Hispanic voters as possible while alienating as few as possible. Remarkably, Bush received a greater percentage of the Hispanic vote than any other Republican presidential candidate in history; 44% while Kerry still won in this demographic with 53% (Wise and Cummings, Jr 354). These two issues, with terrorism being the more discussed of the two, and immigration taking center stage more recently, largely overshadowed most of the 2004 campaign.
Although the Iraq war and the broader war on terror dominated much of the discussion, many polls conducted before and on Election Day, as well as many political scholars credit the “moral values” issues with driving many voters to the polls and subsequently electing George W. Bush. Most of those who were motivated by morality issues were from the south, and voted for Bush. In an exit poll conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International, 22 percent of respondents viewed moral value issues as the most important issue, with 80 percent of those voting for Bush. Clearly a large segment of the electorate was motivated by issues such as gay marriage bans and anti-abortion laws which were on the ballots in many areas, but also because they thought Bush was the candidate whose morals were more in line with their own (Shields 4). This is also reflected in the fact that Bush won among both Protestants and Catholics – 59% to 40% and 52% to 47% respectively (Wise and Cummings, Jr 355).
With all this talk of what went right for Bush we have overlooked what went wrong. The Bush camp faced intense opposition from the Kerry campaign, with most of the attacks coming in some form of “it’s time for a change in America.” According to Kerry, Bush mislead the country into Iraq and about the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction there. Other criticism from the Kerry campaign tried to place the blame for a struggling economy and government over-spending solely on Bush. While some of the criticism stuck, it also opened up opportunities for Rove, the Master of Spin, to work his magic. He countered the notion that Bush mislead the country into war by bringing attention to the fact that Kerry authorized the President to use force against Saddam Hussein. Though the National Intelligence Estimate, to which Kerry had access, painted a skeptical picture of Iraq’s capability to deliver WMD’s, Kerry nonetheless voted in favor of the use of force. In truth, Kerry voted for the use of force, but stipulated that he would like to see all peaceful means explored first (Wikipedia). When all of Kerry’s terms were not met, he began to criticize Bush and the war. This earned him the infamous title of “flip-flopper” and was possibly the biggest factor in Bush’s victory. As stated earlier, a new type of organization was brought about by the McCain-Fiengold Bi-Partisan Campaign Finance Reform Bill which helped sway the election: 527’s.
527 groups had an enormous impact on the 2004 Presidential Election. For the first time in election history, the campaigns were not simply a battle between the candidates, but between these new groups as well. Some of the more important groups in 2004 were MoveOn.org and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth; liberal and conservative respectively. 527’s are so named because of a section in the tax code that allows for them to raise money not necessarily for a candidate, but to raise awareness on an issue. In 2004, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth emerged as a major factor in the election by publicly criticizing Kerry about his service in Vietnam. Contrary to the Kerry propaganda, the Swift Boat Veterans condemned Kerry for his actions during and shortly after his Vietnam service (Wikipedia).
As the campaign of 2004 reached the summer and entered the final stretch run, Bush and Kerry were still in a tight race. Bush would need some kind of bounce in the polls over the next couple months to pull ahead. Kerry had not received a jump as expected after the Democratic National Convention, and as the Republican National Convention rolled around the opportunity seemed ripe for Bush to make a strong run. The RNC was just what Bush needed. Taking place in New York City, the site of the 9/11 attacks, the Republicans played strongly on the national defense theme. Tributes to the fallen heroes were played and connections were drawn with the ongoing Iraq war. A passionate Zel Miller, Democratic senator from Georgia, spoke about the need for strong leadership and national defense in our world today. And George Bush in his acceptance speech reiterated his entire agenda for his administration. After the convention, Bush pulled out to a seven point lead over Kerry (Wise and Cummings, Jr 352). The election was not over however, and Kerry made a strong comeback in the polls throughout October, winning or tying in all three debates. As November 2 neared, the candidates spent unprecedented amounts of money, time, and resources in many of the battleground states including Ohio and Pennsylvania. On Election Day more than 122 million people voted; the highest voter percentage turnout - 60.7% - since 1968 (Faler). Once the votes were counted and the dust had settled, Bush emerged victorious; 62,040,610 votes for Bush and 59,028,439 votes for Kerry. Bush won the Electoral College by a margin of 286-251, with strangely enough one vote in Minnesota going to John Edwards for both President and Vice-President (Leip).
The election of 2004 highlighted a sharp divide among the American people. Even though Bush did win approximately 51% of the vote and won the Electoral College by a somewhat comfortable margin, the division between the two sides is a deep and bitter rift. I think that the days of respectable losers are all but over. The Democrats showed little to no willingness to work in a bi-partisan manner with the President after the 2004 election or the even 2006 mid-term elections when they won control of both houses of congress. I think that campaigns are quickly becoming more glamorous and more hyped, with more press coverage than ever. The new age of the presidential election has already arrived. New forms of media, such as the “blogosphere” have emerged and as campaigns become longer every candidate will be “on the record” more than ever before. The combination of all these factors will allow more people to be informed through more media coverage and media access, but by the same token will require the candidates to take decidedly more distinct positions. The election of 2004 was an initial example of this type of race. Both candidates did, and in the future will have to, take clear-cut positions on every major issue so as to clearly define themselves as opposite their opponent. Americans too, with more options to become informed, did and will also become more divided. Radicalism may likely become more prevalent as supporters rally around candidates who obviously hold their same beliefs.
Bush won in 2004 for reasons too numerous to mention. It can be said very abstractly that more voters in this country identified with Bush’s positions than Kerry’s. I’m glad Bush won. I didn’t vote for the man; wasn’t able to. But I think he has done a much better job than Kerry would have. Of course I don’t agree with all of his policies, but rarely will one find that sort of agreement. In my mind he won because he is truly a war time president and Americans are reluctant to change. As all great leaders do, he assembled a brilliant team around him that he could put in charge of his campaign. He clearly stated what he believed, and this may have been the thing that endeared him most to the American people. The voters knew what Bush believed in and what he would do because they had seen him in action. Kerry on the other hand seemingly flip-flopped in many areas, and failed to specifically enumerate his policies. Bush garnered many swing voters because he was straight forward and down-to-earth.
The 2004 Presidential election was one of the most historical elections in history. It was a first in many revolutionary ways; technologically, legally, and ideologically. It was a time of unprecedented change and progress. I am glad I lived through such an historical moment in time, and everyone involved should never forget the Presidential Election of 2004.
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