The Presidential Elections of 2004 and 2008

John Zvesper

November 1, 2004

In the presidential election of 2008, if the Democrats keep the states they won in 2004 and get eighteen more Electoral College votes, they will win the White House. They could try to do this with their current litany of positions, without developing a more coherent and persuasive “narrative” (which is what James Carville says they need). They could target the eight states (with 97 electoral votes) that Bush won this year by 54% or less. (This includes Virginia, whose governor might be a promising presidential candidate. It does not include New York, and in any case senators do not generally make the best presidential candidates.) The Democrats might not win the popular vote with this strategy, but an Electoral College victory would not seem to be out of their reach. At its most simple-minded, the weakness of such a strategy is that its success would require that the Republicans not successfully attack any 2004 Democratic states. In elections, as in wars, you cannot depend on your opponent obligingly standing still and treating your territory as inviolable. There were six Kerry states (with 63 electoral votes) in which Bush won 46% or more of the votes. These will be irresistible targets for the Republican candidate in 2008. The Democrats will be hampered in attacking 2004 Bush states by having to protect their own 2004 states, which Republicans have the spare capacity to protect even while they advance elsewhere.

Marginally expanding the blue states is also a desperate strategy for the Democratic Party more generally, because even more doubtful than its success would be its success having any coattails. The incumbency advantage in Congress—which for so many years protected Democrats from partisan realigning forces—now protects Republican majorities, which are therefore likely to be less precarious than at any time since they first appeared in both houses in 1994. (In state legislatures, as well, Republicans continue to hold a small majority of chambers, though Democrats made gains in 2004.)

Against this gloomy outlook (for the Democrats), there remains one often denied but reasonably undeniable fact: this presidential election was very untypical, because it was a judgement of an incumbent president’s conduct of the nation’s affairs during a war. In fact, as enemy actions and speeches attested, the election itself was part of the war.

It is true that, to the exit poll question about “the most important issue” in the election, 22% of voters gave the now internationally famous pre-set and (intentionally?) vague response, “moral values.” But 20% of those voters voted against Bush, which suggests that even Bush voters who agreed with this response may well have had in mind something other than protecting traditional marriage or the lives of human embryos. Some of what they may have had in mind shows up in the 70% – 29% advantage of Bush over Kerry among the voters (11% of the total) who thought the “most important quality” in their candidate was that he is “honest/trustworthy,” and in the response to whether you “trust” Bush or Kerry “to handle terrorism”: Bush 58% yes – 40% no; Kerry 40% yes – 58% no.

The election was about many things (and therefore President Bush has made it clear that he will push his fiscal, economic, and educational policy agenda), but in voters’ minds it was above all about the war. That is also why turnout returned to 1968 levels. Remarkably, exit polls report that a quarter of the voters were contacted by one or the other (or both) of the Bush and Kerry campaigns; but what made them so responsive to get-out-the-vote efforts was that, as in 1968, there was a war, and people therefore felt the election was particularly important.

Durable realignments of Americans’ partisan loyalties generally arise not out of foreign policy issues but out of domestic issues. The two kinds of issues are more intertwined than they used to be, but they remain distinguishable, especially in the case of war and peace. So it remains to be seen whether the presidential election of 2004 was a significant part of a rolling realignment favoring Republicans. It may be a little premature for Karl Rove to claim that America is now a 51-48 country rather than a 49-49 country.

Who knows whether or how the war will affect the 2008 presidential election? Surely much will depend on Bush’s conduct of the war between now and then—and on whether the Democratic candidate takes a serious position on the war (assuming it is still an issue). Exit polls found in voters (in stark contrast to the old media) a margin of approval (52%-46%) for Bush’s “decision to go to war in Iraq,” and equally (53%-46%) for how he “is handling his job.” But they also found the same margin (52%-46%) favoring the view that things are going badly rather than well in Iraq. One fifth of Bush voters expressed that view. In other words, continued approval might well depend on Bush “doing better” in the war—as Kerry promised, but as Bush is—for now—more trusted to do.

In the exit poll question about your candidate’s “most important quality,” Bush’s support was greatest among voters who valued “strong leadership” above all the other listed qualities. Even more on foreign than on domestic policy, voters’ judgement of Bush—and to some significant extent the prospects for the Republican nominee in 2008—will depend on Bush having verified the perception that he is a strong and trustworthy leader.

John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American author residing in Europe.