BOSTON—My take on the election: Vision without details beats details without vision. President Bush put forward a powerful and compelling philosophy of what the government should do at home and abroad: Expand liberty. You can disagree with Bush’s implementation of that vision, but objecting to it as a matter of principle isn’t a political winner. John Kerry, on the other hand, campaigned as a technocrat, a man who would be better at “managing” the war and the economy. But for voters faced with a mediocre economy rather than a miserable one, and with a difficult war that’s hopefully not a disastrous one, that message—packaged as “change”—wasn’t compelling enough to persuade them to vote for Kerry.
Without reliable exit-poll data, it’s hard to know exactly which voters and issues decided the election, but my guess is that the Democrats will ultimately conclude that they did what they thought was necessary on the ground to win the election. Karl Rove and the Republicans just did more. (On the exit-poll question: If the initial evening exit-poll result that 5 percent of the late deciders broke for Ralph Nader had turned out to be accurate, Nader would have received more votes from among the pool of late-breaking undecideds than he ended up receiving from the entire electorate.) The Democratic confidence during the early afternoon and evening was based on more than faulty poll data. The Kerry campaign was confident that high turnout from the party base would swing the election their way.
But this election wasn’t a swing, or a pendulum. There was no fairly evenly divided group in the middle of the electorate that ultimately broke for one side and made the difference. The 2004 campaign was not a tug of war between two sides trying to yank the center toward them. Instead, it was a battle over an electorate perched on a seesaw. Each campaign furiously tried to find new voters to add so that it could outweigh the other side. Both sides performed capably: Kerry received more votes than Al Gore did four years ago, and he even received more votes than the previous all-time leader, Ronald Reagan in 1984. President Bush just did even better.
Rove’s gamble that he could find more Bush supporters from among nonvoting social conservatives than from the small number of undecideds in the usual voting public worked exactly as designed. The question for Democrats is whether Rove’s formula will turn out to be a one-time trick tied to Bush’s personal popularity and the emotional bond the nation formed with him after the trauma of 9/11, or whether the Democratic Party has been relegated to permanent, if competitive, minority status. Are the Democrats once again a regional party, the new Eisenhower Republicans of the Northeast? For seven consecutive presidential elections, the Democratic candidate has failed to garner 50 percent of the vote. Not since Jimmy Carter in 1976 has a Democrat won a majority, and even Watergate could get Carter only 50.1 percent.
The silver lining for the minority party is that the Democrats may have a slight edge in the Electoral College. Although he lost the popular vote by more than 3.5 million (a landslide in a 50-50 nation), Kerry lost the presidency by a much smaller amount: fewer than 140,000 votes in Ohio. The 2008 battleground will likely be even smaller than 2004’s: Only 19 states in this election had a vote margin that within single digits. In 2000’s divided America, Bush and Gore finished within 5 points of each other in 22 states. This time, Bush and Kerry came within sniffing distance of each other in half as many, 11. Despite President Bush’s remarkably successful campaign, and despite the fact that he became the first president to win a majority of the vote since his father did the same in 1988, in his second term George W. Bush will preside over a country that is even more divided than it was during his first.