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How Bush Really Won


Famously, as I have mentioned, more than one in five Americans—22 percent—who spoke to pollsters as they left the voting places said, when presented with seven choices, that their “most important issue” had been “moral values,” and of these four out of five cast their votes for George Bush. On the other hand, 19 percent selected “terrorism” and another 15 percent chose “Iraq,” meaning that more than one in three voters said the war—the Iraq war or the “war on terror”—was their most important issue. In fact, the most striking single result of the exit polls was Bush’s much stronger appeal to women—many of them, apparently, the much-discussed “security moms,” who were thought to be especially concerned about protecting their families. All of these numbers and conclusions, needless to say, bear further scrutiny.

Using an exit poll to draw precise conclusions from a national election is like using a very blurry magnifying glass to analyze the brushstrokes in a huge and complicated pointillist painting. Our tools for judging what elections “mean” are quite crude, depending as they do on the willingness of voters to speak to pollsters, on their ability to speak honestly about the choices they made, and on their particular talents for understanding and expressing their own motives. As we saw this year—when faulty exit polls that suggested an overwhelming Kerry victory significantly distorted election-day press coverage—they can often produce downright wrong conclusions. Despite the “scientific” feel that numbers lend to any analysis, there is more art to it than science and, despite the impression that election and analysis are starkly separate, much analysis, as the Reverend Jones’s letter to President Bush suggests, simply carries forward beyond the election a self-interested political narrative that preceded it.

If one stands back a bit and lets the drifting smoke of the pundits and the preachers and the exit poll analysts begin to clear, three interesting facts about the 2004 election stand out. The first is that the election was very close—historically close, in fact. The table on this page shows the margins of victory, in percentage of the popular vote and in electoral votes, of sitting Republican presidents who have won reelection during the last hundred years.

As these numbers show, incumbency is a huge advantage; nonetheless, Bush’s reelection was a squeaker, the closest for a Republican in more than a century.2 Four years after the historically close election of 2000, and after a hard-fought eight-month campaign in which the candidates, the parties, and so-called “independent” groups spent more than a billion dollars to woo voters, the electoral map hardly changed. Only three small states switched sides: the Democrats picked up New Hampshire (four electoral votes) and the Republicans very narrowly won Iowa (eight) and New Mexico (five). Bush had a net gain of only nine electoral votes, which, added to the seven that the Republicans gained through reapportionment, gave him his narrow margin of victory.3

Had fewer than 60,000 Ohio voters decided to cast their ballots for the Democrat rather than the Republican (and according to the exit polls one voter in twenty decided whom to vote for on election day), John Kerry would have won Ohio’s twenty electoral votes and with them the presidency—and would have entered the White House in January 2005, as George W. Bush had done in January 2001, having won the votes of fewer Americans than the man he defeated. About 2,991,437 fewer, which, as I write, is George W. Bush’s margin of victory, out of 122,124,783 votes cast for president.

Which leads to the second interesting fact about the 2004 election: a great many more people turned out to vote, nearly seventeen million more, than turned out four years ago. Nearly 60 percent of those Americans eligible cast ballots in 2004, an increase in turnout of almost 6 percent.4 In the so-called battleground states, where vast sums were spent on advertising and one could not escape the barrage of political messages blaring from television and radio and pouring out of the telephone and the mailbox, the increase in turnout was even greater. A million and a half more Floridians cast ballots than had four years before: in 2000—itself an intensely fought election in which turnout substantially increased—fewer than 56 percent of eligible Floridians voted; in 2004 more than 65 percent did.

This leads, finally, to the third interesting fact about the election, which is that in the days leading up to it many of the “indicators” which political professionals have traditionally taken to suggest whether or not an incumbent will win were running distinctly against President Bush. Most notably, more Americans (55 percent) said they thought the country was “headed in the wrong direction” than those who said it was headed in the right one, and fewer than half of Americans polled (49 percent) said that they approved of the President’s performance in office. More disapproved than approved of the President’s handling of foreign policy (49 percent to 45 percent) and of the economy (51 percent to 43 percent). Finally more Americans disapproved than approved of the President’s handling of Iraq (50 percent to 45 percent), his most important foreign policy, and, perhaps most strikingly, more than two Americans in three told pollsters that Mr. Bush’s tax cuts—his signal domestic accomplishment—had either been bad for the economy (17 percent) or had not made much difference (51 percent).5

The President went into the election, then, with Americans mildly pessimistic about the direction of the country and broadly disapproving of his performance and his policies. Most polls showed the race “too close to call,” and many of the major indicators, “historically” speaking, suggested the incumbent would lose. Small wonder that so many experts, including apparently the President’s own political team, were willing to believe the election-day exit polls that into the early evening showed their man losing by a considerable margin. (The widely circulated numbers from the respected polling firm Zogby International, for example, showed Mr. Kerry winning 311 electoral votes). The fact was that though President Bush was personally popular, many of his major policies were not. The problem for the Bush campaign was how to turn attention away from policies voters didn’t like—particularly the President’s decisions on Iraq and his conduct of the war there—toward policies they approved of—particularly his conduct of “the war on terror” (into which Iraq would be “folded”)—and toward his personal qualities.


If your babies were left all alone in the dead of night, who would you rather have setting there on the porch—John Kerry and his snowboard or George W. with his shotgun?

—Sean Michaels, professional wrestler, warming up the crowd, Tinker Field, October 30, 2004

On a beautiful October evening three days before the election, Orlando’s Tinker Field had become an enormous bowl filled with 17,000 screaming, chanting Bush partisans floating in a sea of red, white, and blue. On the stadium wall hung a great fifty-foot high sign proclaiming that George W. Bush was “MOVING AMERICA FORWARD!” Inside, flanking the stage in letters that dwarfed it, and echoed by smaller signs bobbing up and down everywhere in the crowd, was the terse slogan “AMERICA: SAFER STRONGER BETTER!” And then, precisely placed around the stadium in enormous letters, were the words on which the campaign was built: “STRENGTH! LEADERSHIP! CHARACTER! INTEGRITY!” Disciplined, organized, relentless, the Bush campaign would never be accused of subtlety.

Well…, I’m just so proud of the way he handled 9/11—I mean, that was…amazing!” Dot Richardson-Pinto told me as we sat together near the podium. When I’d asked why she supported the President, she had had to search a moment for an answer, and not entirely because she couldn’t understand how it could be that anyone wouldn’t. She’d had to think for a moment, I came to realize, because her ardor had so much more to do with who he was than with what he did. And who he was could be summarized by those four giant words looming over the stage.

It doesn’t matter if the man can talk,” Ms. Richardson-Pinto told me. “Sometimes, when someone’s real articulate you can’t trust what he says, you know?” As the security helicopters circled overhead, and the crowd launched into yet one more chant of “Kerry is scary!” I was struck again by how precisely the campaign had managed to define Bush’s strengths in perfect contradistinction to what they had defined as Kerry’s weaknesses, and then to devote all its resources to emphasizing both. Every repetition of what Bush was—and the repetitions were unending, and intricately varied—was crafted to be a perfect reminder of what his opponent was not. Practically every word emitted by the campaign, whether through the thousands and thousands of television and radio commercials, or the words of the campaign spokesmen, or the speeches of the candidate himself, moved in gorgeously disciplined lockstep to drive home to voters not only who George W. Bush was but who his opponent was not. As Bush became more and more Bush (“STRENGTH! LEADERSHIP! CHARACTER! INTEGRITY!”), Kerry, little-known, chilly, distant, was turned into the anti-Bush, a weak, shallow, flipflopping, shillyshallyer whose every word was an attempt to deceive Americans about who he really was.

In blue shirt and black slacks the President strode into the stadium, flanked by his wife and brother Jeb, and raised his hands to the rock-star reception. When the thunderous chants—“Viva Bush! Viva Bush!”—had finally dropped off to a scattering of shouts, he launched into a speech whose terms I knew well but whose effectiveness, with Ms. Richardson-Pinto sitting beside me, I only now understood. George W. Bush seemed to be speaking directly to her, to be bringing her into his family:

Sometimes I’m a little too blunt—I get that from my mother. [Huge cheers] Sometimes I mangle the English language—I get that from my dad. [Laughter and cheers]

But you always know where I stand. You can’t say that for my opponent….

The fact is that all progress on other issues depends on the safety of our citizens. The most solemn duty of the American president is to protect the American people. [Loud cheers. Chants of “Four More Years! Four More Years! Four More Years!”]

The president must make tough decisions and stand behind them. Especially in time of war mixed signals only confuse our friends and embolden our enemies.

If America shows uncertainty or weakness in these troubling times the world will drift toward tragedy—and this will not happen on my watch!

In a few blunt lines Bush had subsumed everything else beneath the preeminent shining banner of the war on terror, and subsumed that war beneath his own reputation for forthrightness, decisiveness, and strength. And he had identified uncertainty, hesitation, vacillation—even the sort of nit-picking that would seek to separate the war in Iraq from the war on terror—as not simply mistaken or foolish but dangerous. “Relentless”…”Steadfast”…”Determined”: these words came fast and strong, again and again. And then the climactic line: “We will fight the terrorists across the globe so we do not have to fight them here at home!” It drew a huge response and after the applause and chanting had finally died down he followed up with his most important words about the current shooting war:

  1. 2

    In 1996 Bill Clinton, the last president to win reelection, won by 8.5 percent and 220 electoral votes; in 1964 Lyndon Johnson—who like Theodore Roosevelt had not been elected but took office after the death of an incumbent—won by 22 percent and 434 electoral votes. To find an elected incumbent who won by nearly as narrow a margin as George W. Bush, one must look back nine decades, to 1916, when Democrat Woodrow Wilson won by 3.2 percent and 23 electoral votes.

  2. 3

    Because of population gains recorded in the 2000 Census some states, like Arizona, Florida, and Georgia, were accorded more electoral votes in 2004, while others, like New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, were accorded fewer. This process favored the Republicans, with their base in the growing states of the South and Southwest; the same states they had won in 2000 were worth seven more votes in 2004.

  3. 4

    These figures are drawn from Michael McDonald of George Mason University and the United States Election Project. His turnout figures represent the percentage of people eligible to vote (VEP)—thus eliminating noncitizens, felons, etc.—rather than the more common, but less accurate, percentage of people of voting age (VAP). See elections.gmu.edu/voter_turnout .htm.

  4. 5

    These numbers are all drawn from The New York Times/CBS News Poll, taken in mid- to late October, with most, though not all, of the polling done between October 28 and 30.

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