Progressives: Get Ready to Fight
What Went Wrong
Bush won a majority of the popular vote by increasing the turnout and his margin in the "red states," those that went for Bush in 2000. Kerry edged out Bush in the total vote in battleground states, but Bush won his Electoral College edge in Ohio and Florida by increasing the turnout and his margin in pro-Republican precincts in those states. The Republican mobilization, fueled by volunteers in precincts across the country, often anchored in evangelical churches, tracked down and turned out conservative, pro-Bush voters of every stripe. For the first time, self-described Republicans matched Democrats in the number of voters who turned up at the polls.
"Morals trumped economics, even in Ohio," conclude the pundits. But the reality was more complicated. In an election day poll for the Institute for America's Future, taken by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, respondents were split on what factor most influenced their choice. About 20 percent said it was economics and jobs; these people voted two to one for Kerry. About 20 percent said it was the war on terror; they voted three to one for Bush. The 20 percent who named Iraq as most important voted overwhelmingly for Kerry. A similar number chose morals and voted overwhelmingly for Bush, while the smaller percentages that chose healthcare and education went big for Kerry. Where the question was performance--Iraq and the economy, healthcare, education--Bush lost. Where it was worldview--morals and the war on terror--Bush won big.
A majority of voters did not support the President's policies. By 51 to 41, voters considered the country to be "substantially on the wrong course." A majority wanted change. A plurality--49 to 46--said that the war on Iraq was making America less safe, not more safe. By significant majorities, voters supported protecting Social Security over privatizing it, fair trade over free trade, investment in education and healthcare over paring back spending and reducing the deficit. The voters who handed Florida and Nevada to Bush also voted overwhelmingly to pass initiatives to raise the minimum wage in the those states.
In the America's Future poll, most voters said they were looking for an election that provided answers about the economy and jobs rather than how to make America safe. This was particularly true among wavering Bush voters--those who ended up voting for Bush but thought about voting for Kerry. With a campaign focused on Iraq and the war on terror, with little attention paid to kitchen-table concerns, many ended up voting their social conservatism.
The power of the so-called "moral issues"--God, guns and gays--is apparent. But the potential of a compelling populist economic argument is too often slighted. Consider the so-called Nascar Dads--socially conservative, patriotic white males who've voted Republican in large numbers since the early 1980s and who have lost ground in the new economy. The AFL-CIO and associated unions showed how economic issues could matter. They made a concerted effort to reach their members on issues like vanishing overtime pay, soaring healthcare costs, the loss of jobs. This effort paid off. White men in general voted for Bush by a margin of eighteen percentage points; white men who were union members favored Kerry by twenty-one points. Weekly churchgoers favored Bush by twenty-one points; weekly churchgoers who were union members favored Kerry by twelve. Gun owners chose Bush by twenty points; union gun owners opted for Kerry by twelve. And it didn't take a lifetime of union membership to produce this effect. This year, the AFL's Working America enlisted more than 750,000 people as associate members of the federation and educated them on kitchen-table issues like outsourcing and healthcare. In Ohio, Florida and Missouri, white males went for Bush by twenty-three percentage points. In tracking polls leading up to the election, Working America's white male members chose Kerry by twenty-one points. Married women in those states favored Bush by thirteen; Working America wives preferred Kerry by twenty-three. Morals didn't trump economics; the economic cards simply weren't dealt.