I have won what I call political capital and now I intend to spend it.

—George W. Bush, November 3, 2004

Driving north from Tampa on Florida’s Route 75 on November 1, as the battle over who would hold political power in America was reaching a climax but the struggle over what that battle meant had yet to begin, I put down the top of my rented green convertible, turned the talk radio voices up to blaring, and commenced reading the roadside. Beside me billboards flew past, one hard upon another, as if some errant giant had cut a great deck of cards and fanned them out along each shoulder. Hour by hour, as the booming salesman’s voice of proud Floridian Rush Limbaugh rumbled from the radio, warning gravely of the dangers of “voting for bin Laden” (“Haven’t you noticed that bin Laden is using Democratic talking points?“), and other ominous voices reminded listeners of the “hundreds of votes” Senator Kerry cast “against our national defense” (“In a time of terror, when our enemies are gathering…can we afford to take that risk?“), I watched rush by, interspersed with the blaring offers of “Florida Citrus! One Bag $1!” and “Need Help With Sinkholes?,” a series of perhaps fifty garish signs announcing an approaching “Adult Toy Café!” and “Adult Toy Extravaganza!” and then “We Bare All!” and finally, the capper, “All Nude—Good Food—Truckers Welcome!”

It wasn’t long before this billboard parade had acquired its stark spiritual counterpoint—“Jesus Is Still the Answer!”—and by the time I reached the promised “extravaganza”—a sad and windowless two-room shack just off the highway, smaller than most of the signs advertising it—I found, standing just down the road from the pathetic little house of sin, a resplendent white church more than twice its size. In the world of American hucksterism, the sin may be the draw but the payoff’s always in redemption.

This was perhaps thirty-six hours before an army of self-interested commentators, self-appointed spiritual leaders, and television pundits hot for a simple storyline had seized on the answers to a clumsily posed exit poll question—more than one respondent in five, offered seven choices, had selected “moral values” as their “most important issue”—and used those answers to transform the results of the 2004 election into a rousing statement of Americans’ disgust with abortion, promiscuity, R-rated movies, gay marriage, late-night television, and other “Hollywood-type” moral laxity. Some, like the Reverend Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, wrote the President with admirable directness to remind him what the election meant, and what he now owed:

In your re-election, God has graciously granted America—though she doesn’t deserve it—a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate…. Don’t equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ….

Undoubtedly, you will have opportunity to appoint many conservative judges and exercise forceful leadership with the Congress in passing legislation that is defined by biblical norm regarding the family, sexuality, sanctity of life, religious freedom, freedom of speech, and limited government. You have four years—a brief time only—to leave an imprint for righteousness upon this nation that brings with it the blessings of Almighty God….

If you have weaklings around you who do not share your biblical values, shed yourself of them.

And yet the voters of Union County, Florida’s smallest, whom I found crowding the election supervisor’s office in tiny Lake Butler, seemed unaware that they had been impelled to vote by a newfound quest for redemption. In Lake Butler, turnout was higher than anyone could remember; in Union County, voter registration had risen by 25 percent over 2000, when I had last visited.1 But none of the voters who spoke to me there volunteered a word about “moral values.” Their answers tended to be much more concrete. “It’s because of 9/11—you know, because of the terrorism,” said Babs Montpetit—a.k.a. Miss Babs, election supervisor of Union County since 1985. “Because of the terrorism people are afraid not to vote.” Through the window behind her I could see Lake Butler’s main street, with its scattering of stores and bars—a tiny, isolated place, with barely seven thousand registered voters, far from any major city. Why should its citizens worry about terrorism? “Why, who could have expected that would happen, that business in New York?” Miss Babs asked me in return, leaning forward and lowering her voice. “You just don’t know.”

Back in the car, I turned on the radio to find the Florida news feed, which led with this story:

A suspicious package that seemed to be vibrating forced the closing of the State Board of Elections today. The parcel, it turned out, was an ordinary package that happened to have been placed next to an air conditioner, the breeze from which accounted for the apparent vibrating action….

This embarrassing incident, which in other times might have been treated as a humorous item about the haplessness of government officials, was reported in dead seriousness: a dark dispatch from the front lines. As I left Lake Butler, stepping on the accelerator, I turned the radio up and the air around me filled again with the booming voice of Rush Limbaugh, in full and impressive rant:


Osama bin Laden cannot launch an attack on the United States of America. Osama bin Laden can only deliver a tape, and on that tape, bin Laden appeals to the very appeasers in this country who would allow him to gain strength by agreeing with what he says and voting for the man who is being quoted by bin Laden. John Kerry, as much as Michael Moore, was quoted by Osama bin Laden in that video that we all saw…. Michael Moore is not on the ballot; John Kerry is. Osama bin Laden parroting John Kerry in his tape on Friday. We have a unique responsibility to lead the world in confronting and defeating this evil threat….

Returning to the days of appeasement, trying to meet a “global test” of world opinion, ignoring threats from hostile nations and groups is a deadly mistake we simply can’t afford to make…. The Democrat Party in this country is eager to point to the things bin Laden said and suggest that he is right—a man who happily murdered three thousand Americans and is eager to do so over and over and over again! You say, “Rush, I haven’t heard the Democrats say that.” Oh, you can find it on their Web sites. You can find people who are going to vote for John Kerry who have said this. You can find people on various Democrat Web sites who are excited bin Laden said what he said. They’re hoping for an Osama smackdown of Bush, if I may quote one of the things I saw.

Interspersed with Limbaugh’s extraordinarily fluid and persuasively deceptive tirade—heard, according to his home station in Sacramento, by “nearly 20 million people over 600 stations”—came the political advertisements, one after another, which turned skillfully around a concentrated version of the same plotline: First, the threat America faces today is as great as any in the country’s history. Second, that threat makes this election “the most important in history,” because if Americans make “the wrong choice” they could make themselves and their families more vulnerable. Third, therefore, Americans must vote, and must make “the right choice.” Fear is joined skillfully to risk: a risk that is personal and looming, and—most important—that could very well increase if the election goes the wrong way.

The script of the famous “Wolves” television ad, with its simple image of a pack of ravenous, circling carnivores readying for the attack, embodied this plotline in perhaps its purest form:

In an increasingly dangerous world…. Even after the first terrorist attack on America…John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America’s intelligence operations. By six billion dollars…. Cuts so deep they would have weakened America’s defenses. And weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm.

A vote for Bush is a vote to stave off that weakness. More important, a failure to vote could make way for that “weakening of America’s defenses.” As I headed to Jacksonville, grave voices from the radio warned again and again of what was at stake:

John Kerry. The most liberal man in the Senate. The most liberal person to ever run for president. He voted to cut our military…. To severely cut our intelligence agencies…. He voted for higher taxes 350 times…. And now he wants to be our President…. We live in a dangerous world that requires strong and steady leadership. John Kerry is a risky choice for America…a risk we cannot take.

This rhetoric of risk carries forward a narrative that Republicans began shaping soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and that came boldly to the fore as a political strategy the following May, when Vice President Cheney declared that the statements of several Democratic senators, who had rather timidly questioned some of the decisions made in conducting the war in Afghanistan, were “unworthy of national leaders in a time of war.” Though this bold shot across the bow essentially put an end to any overt Democratic criticism of the administration on the conduct of the war on terror, Republicans clearly realized that when it came to terrorism and national security, as Karl Rove observed during a speech to the Republican National Committee in January 2002, they could “go to the country on this issue, because [Americans] trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America.”


That autumn Republicans triumphed in the midterm elections, largely because they effectively exploited Americans’ apparent willingness to believe that the Republicans could better protect the country. This strategy was displayed most dramatically in Saxby Chambliss’s victory over the incumbent Max Cleland in the Senate race in Georgia, in which the challenger portrayed Cleland, a highly decorated veteran who had lost three limbs in Vietnam, as an ally of bin Laden. Though the claims were obviously trumped up—they rested on the fact that Cleland had not instantly voted for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security—the images of Cleland’s and bin Laden’s faces side by side in effect doomed the incumbent.

The attacks of September 11 restored to Republicans their traditional political advantage in matters of “national security” and “national defense”—an advantage the party had lost with the end of the cold war—and Republicans capitalized on that advantage, not only by running President Bush as “a war president,” as he repeatedly identified himself, but by presenting a vote for John Kerry—whom the Republicans succeeded in defining (with a good deal of help from the Swift Boat Veterans, and from Kerry himself) as indecisive, opportunistic, and untrustworthy—as a vote that was inherently, dangerously risky. The emphasis placed on Bush’s much-promoted personal strengths—decisiveness, determination, reliability, transparency—served to base his candidacy at once on “moral values” and on “national security,” in effect making possession of the first essential to protect the second. Bush’s decisiveness was put forward as the flip side of Kerry’s dangerous vacillation, the answer to the threat of weakness Kerry was alleged to pose. This equation was dramatized, perfected, and repeated, with much discipline and persistence, in thousands of advertisements, speeches, and “talking heads” discussion programs on conservative networks, especially Fox. (In Lake Butler, Miss Babs’s husband, she told me, “watches only Fox News. He believes all the other channels are propaganda.”) Despite all the talk about “moral values,” the 2004 election turned on a fulcrum of fear.

Republican Presidents Reelected During the Last Hundred Years
President Popular Vote Electoral Vote
1904 Theodore Roosevelt 17% 196
1956 Dwight D. Eisenhower 16% 384
1972 Richard M. Nixon 23% 503
1984 Ronald Reagan 18% 512
2004 George Bush 2% 34


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:

I will use every asset at our disposal to protect the American people and one of the best assets we have is freedom! Freedom is powerful!

Freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it is the Almighty’s gift to everyone…. Iraq is still dangerous but Iraq will have free elections in January—think how far that country has come!

On good days and bad days, whether the polls are up or the polls are down, I am determined to protect the American people!

The Iraq war was not only irrevocably part of the war on terror—who could think, gazing at the car bombs and beheadings every night on television, that they were any different?—it had become a leading part of the ideological response to the threat of terror: a first step in the expansion of the holy cause of freedom. As Reagan had dared to go beyond staunch anticommunism and imagine a world after communism’s collapse, so Bush looked beyond the present chaotic world of terror to see a blessed land of freedom.6 (“In this election, my opponent has spent a lot of time talking about a day that is gone. I’m talking about the day that is coming.”) It was a striking vision, clear and absolutely simple to understand. And it linked, firmly and directly, the so-called “moral values” of justice, fairness, and the Almighty to the cause of national security, and specifically to the war on terror that the Bush people kept relentlessly at the campaign’s heart. “Terror,” “Iraq,” and “moral values,” supposedly separate “important issues,” had been seamlessly joined.

Of course whatever its virtues as a campaign theme, the picture the President offered was not especially “fact-dependent.” Many well-known facts—on which Kerry, in his campaign, had laid such stress—were either irrelevant to it (the missing weapons of mass destruction, which went unmentioned) or directly contradicted by it (the failure to demonstrate connections between Iraq and the attacks of September 11). But the facts did not matter—not necessarily because those in the stadium were ignorant of them, though some certainly were, but because the President was offering in their place a worldview that was whole, complete, comprehensible, and thus impermeable to statements of fact that clearly contradicted it. The thousands cheering around me in that Orlando stadium, and the many others who would come to support Bush on election day, faced a stark choice: either discard the facts, or give up the clear and comforting worldview that they contradicted. They chose to disregard the facts.

Two weeks before the election, after the Senate Intelligence Committee report on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the Duelfer Report, and after intensive news coverage of the administration’s failure to find such weapons in Iraq, nearly three Bush supporters in four told pollsters they believed Iraq had either had weapons of mass destruction (47 percent) or had had a “major program” to develop them (26 percent). Nearly three in five said they believed that the widely publicized Duelfer Report, which directly contradicted this, had in fact confirmed it. Three in four believed that Iraq had either been directly involved in the September 11 attacks (20 percent) or had given al-Qaeda “substantial support” (55 percent), and nearly three in ten wrongly believed that the 9/11 Commission had confirmed that they had. Similar majorities believed that the President and his administration still publicly supported these positions.

Many of the Bush supporters I spoke to were educated, well-informed people. They watched the news and took pleasure in debating politics. And yet they clung to views about important matters of fact that were demonstrably wrong. Steven Kull, the public opinion expert at the University of Maryland who authored the study from which these numbers are drawn, acknowledges that although one reason they “cling so tightly to beliefs that have been so visibly refuted…is that they continue to hear the Bush administration confirming these beliefs,” the prevalence, and persistence, of these misperceptions is “probably not due to a simple failure to pay attention to the news.” Rather, Kull writes, “Bush supporters cling to these beliefs because they are necessary for their support for the decision to go to war with Iraq”:

Asked whether the US should have gone to war with Iraq if US intelligence had concluded that Iraq was not making WMD or providing support to al Qaeda, 58 percent of Bush supporters said the US should not have, and 61 percent assume that in this case the president would not have. To support the president and to accept that he took the US to war based on mistaken assumptions is difficult to bear, especially in light of the continuing costs in terms of lives and money. Apparently, to avoid this cognitive dissonance, Bush supporters suppress awareness of unsettling information.7

This analysis suggests the difficulties Kerry faced in pressing home his highly “fact-dependent” argument that the Iraq war was separate from the war on terror and thus a mistaken distraction from it. Not only did accepting the point require a good deal of sophistication and knowledge, not only did it seem to contradict the evidence on Americans’ television screens each night, which often showed vivid depictions of terrorism in Iraq; it also seemed to imply to some voters that they should take what must have seemed an unpatriotic position. For if they accepted the false pretenses on which the war had been based, how could they go on supporting it, as Kerry, somewhat illogically and even dishonestly, seemed to be asking them to do?

Those running the Bush campaign clearly counted on the talent and influence of impressive propagandists like Limbaugh, and the help they received from an often acquiescent mainstream press. More, they counted on the President’s reputation for forthrightness, together with the political folk wisdom that many people, particularly “during wartime,” believe “the man, not the fact.” When Bush, in full rhetorical flower in Tinker Field, declared to his delirious audience that “Americans need a president who doesn’t think terrorism is ‘a nuisance,'” my neighbor Ms. Richardson-Pinto nudged me with her elbow and shouted over the laughter and cheers, “Do you believe Kerry said that?” Actually, I shouted into her ear, Kerry hadn’t said that, and then I paraphrased for her the actual quotation:

We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance. As a former law enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution… [and] illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where…it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.8

Hardly exceptional; indeed, Bush himself had only weeks before said something very similar. Ms. Richardson-Pinto, a well-educated, worldly woman—a doctor, and a two-time Olympic gold medalist in women’s softball—listened to me intently, nodded politely, began to form a question, and then, thinking better of it, looked at me for a moment longer before turning back to the President. She’d had a choice what—or rather whom—to believe; and she’d made it.


Saddam would never have disarmed.

—George W. Bush, first presidential debate,September 30, 2004

Seven o’clock on the evening of Election Day and the office of the election supervisor in downtown Jacksonville was mobbed, encircled by a raggedy line of hundreds and hundreds of late voters. In the street in front an enormous crowd of Democrats chanted, cheered, and sang, filling every inch of space and spilling out into the streets. Car after car, horns blaring, made its way carefully through the crowd, the drivers leaning out to administer high fives and to cheer, and cheer again. When word of the early exit-poll numbers seeming to confirm an overwhelming Kerry victory swept through the crowd, hundreds broke into song, to the tune of the old civil rights classic, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”:

Ain’t gonna let nobody steal my vote
Steal my vote, steal my vote
Ain’t gonna let nobody steal my vote….
It had been Jacksonville where in 2000 the infamous “caterpillar ballot” had led officials to discard tens of thousands of votes, votes cast overwhelmingly by African-Americans. As I stood watching the dancing and the celebration—“We gonna elect one, not select one!”—the sense people had of justice finally being done was vivid. I had felt it all day as I went from polling place to polling place in the downtown neighborhoods of the city—they were overwhelmed with voters, and overwhelmed with a sense that a wrong would be righted.

What I didn’t find was any sense of strong support for John Kerry as a politician or a leader, or even a feeling of familiarity with him. The personality of Bush seemed vivid among voters, whether they admired him or hated him; the personality of Kerry was faint, indistinct, and where I found its mark most strongly was among those Bush voters who saw the Massachusetts senator, or the depiction of him that the Bush campaign had succeeded in creating, as a threat to their security. To counteract this Kerry would have had to become a known quality, trusted, familiar; but even after the hundreds of millions spent on advertising and his strong performance in the debates, for most voters he seemed a distant figure. He never entered that great stock company of celebrities—the “Oprah touring company”—that ordinary Americans welcome into their living rooms and believe they have somehow come to know. Love him or hate him, the President had long since taken his place as a recognizable, powerful personality in that company; John Kerry never did.

I had seen Kerry speak two nights before in Tampa, before a crowd fully as delirious as the one that had greeted George W. Bush the night before. Though the Kerry crowd was recognizably younger and, for lack of a better word, “hipper,” most of those present would not have seemed out of place at either event. Partly hidden behind a forest of yellow “Two More Days!” signs, Kerry, by far the tallest person on stage, stretched and shifted as he was introduced, raising and lowering himself on the balls of his feet: he was plainly exhausted. Nonetheless he gave a powerful, well-crafted speech, though built around the uninspired phrases “a fresh start” and “first we must choose.” And then he turned to Iraq:

The President tells us that in Iraq, his “strategy is succeeding….” But every day on our TV screens, we see the hard truths. We see the consequences of this President’s decision to rush to war without a plan to win the peace: the loss of over 1,100 of our brave men and women in uniform. A cost of $225 billion with billions more on the way. Entire regions controlled by insurgents and terrorists. By pushing our allies aside, George Bush’s catastrophic mismanagement of this war has left America to bear almost 90 percent of the costs and 90 percent of the coalition casualties. We relied on Afghan warlords instead of American troops to hunt down Osama bin Laden, and the man responsible for murdering more than three thousand Americans walked away…. On Tuesday, we have the opportunity to set a new course in Iraq…open up a new chapter in our relationship with the rest of the world… and do whatever it takes to defend America and keep our troops safe…. When I’m president, I will bring other nations to our side and train Iraqis so that we can succeed and bring our troops home. As president, I will fight a tougher, smarter, more effective war on terror. We will hunt down, capture, and kill the terrorists wherever they are. I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president.

Kerry’s indictment of Bush’s stewardship of the war was strong, but he offered little by way of an alternative; his “new course in Iraq” amounted to bringing “other nations to our side” to train Iraqis. He would “do whatever it takes to defend America”—a broad, empty assertion that depended entirely on the trust a prospective voter was willing to grant him. And though Kerry struggled to separate Iraq and the war on terror, not just the imagery of the war—the descent of Iraq into a kind of terrorism that, ironically enough, seemed to confirm the President’s insistence that it was in fact “the central front of the war on terror”—but Kerry’s own discussion of Iraq and terrorism only seemed to bring them together.

For Kerry, this proved fatal. If Bush had succeeded in joining Iraq and terrorism and then wrestling to the very center of the election his chosen question—whom do you trust to protect you and your family from terrorism?—he had also succeeded, for too many of those famous “swing voters,” in providing the answer. The exit polls make this clear: nearly six in ten voters said they trusted Bush to “handle terrorism.” Nearly six in ten said they did not trust Kerry to do the same.

Of course it is easy to say, as many have, that Kerry’s policy on Iraq and terrorism was inadequate or incoherent. It is much harder to say what that policy should have been. Kerry, it is true, did not prove himself a very creative or resourceful candidate, and the Bush campaign was ruthless and brilliant in seizing on his missteps—his mention of a “global test” for United States intervention abroad, for example, and his unfortunate statement that “I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it”—and using them to color in vivid tones the picture they wanted to paint of the senator.9 Kerry gave them a good deal of help, particularly by focusing on Vietnam, and attempting to make his heroic service as a naval officer there a central part of his campaign while avoiding discussion of his more controversial leadership in the antiwar movement after he returned. The so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, incensed by the antiwar Kerry, did great damage to the reputation of heroic warrior Kerry, and thereby did much to bolster the point that the Bush campaign, with the help of tens of millions of dollars in television and radio ads, had sought to drive home to American voters: that Kerry was inauthentic, untrustworthy, and “unfit to lead.”

But Kerry’s mistakes, however costly, in fact concealed a deeper problem, which was that Democrats themselves, haunted by the traditional charge of “weakness on national security” (which of course helped lead to Kerry’s nomination), were deeply divided on what should be done about the Iraq war, with as many favoring withdrawal as not.10 This is not surprising: the war itself, a costly, tangled, unending mess, admits of no obvious solution. The war may well be President Bush’s greatest wound; but for candidate Bush the ability to depict Iraq as “the central front of the war on terror” and trumpet his willingness to confront the war and “stay the course” to victory was an audacious and astonishing act of political legerdemain. He took what looked to be his greatest weakness and made it his opponent’s.

Kerry might have done better to declare early on that Iraq and the war on terror could no longer be separated, and to argue, forcefully and consistently, that Bush had conducted both incompetently—so incompetently, in fact, that four more years of his leadership would put Americans at ever greater risk. But to have been convincing, such a strategy, at least implicitly, would have meant accepting the necessity of going to war in Iraq—a position that many committed Democratic voters strongly disputed and that Kerry’s own past statements tended to contradict. And it would have meant demonstrating the kind of single-mindedness, relentlessness, and rigor that the Bush campaign managed but the Kerry forces never did. Either way, as long as Bush was able to succeed in melding Iraq and the war on terror and placing them firmly at the center of the campaign, Kerry faced an incumbent “war president” who, whatever his missteps, Americans would be hesitant to abandon—without a very good reason for doing so. Kerry never produced that reason.

At about half past eight, as I stood amid the roiling sea of jubilant Democrats outside that election supervisor’s office in downtown Jacksonville, I began to hear, through the civil rights songs and the laughter and cheers, a distant, booming, amplified chant. One by one people in the crowd before me heard it, and began turning to look down the street whence the chanting came, and then to look at one another. The voices grew louder and louder, and finally we saw their source: a group of twenty or so young men—they looked like football players—led by a beefy fellow holding high a blue Bush/Cheney sign, and chanting through a megaphone in a deep baritone:

Bush Won the State! Bush Won the State! Bush Won the State!

The dream of a Democratic victory had been fueled by the enormous turnout and by a handful of faulty exit polls. Everyone had believed it, even those distinctly downcast Republicans I’d visited at their Jacksonville headquarters earlier that afternoon. But the dream had ended.

The Democrats had come remarkably close. They had matched the Republicans in fund-raising dollar for dollar and had mounted an unprecedented “ground game.” On election day they managed the impressive feat of bringing eight million more voters to the polls than they had four years before. But the Republicans managed to bring in eleven million additional voters. George W. Bush, having gained half a million fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000, defeated John Kerry by three million votes.11

Still, the victory was “narrow but clear,” as William Kristol described it, with candor rare among Republicans after the election. For all the talk of “moral values,” had 60,000 Ohioans made a different choice on election day, we would now be discussing the unpopularity of the Iraq war and the President’s failed economic policies. After his narrow but clear victory, George W. Bush remained a popular leader promoting unpopular policies. And though he managed to convince enough Americans that Iraq was “the central front in the war on terror,” the truth remains that he has saddled himself and the country he leads with a worsening, increasingly unpopular shooting war that offers no obvious means of escape.

Now he faces a newly emboldened set of claimants. Though several million more evangelical voters turned out in 2004, and thus were critical to Bush’s victory, they do not seem to have formed a higher percentage of Republican voters than they had four years before.12 Still, having accounted, in their increased numbers, for a third of Bush’s margin of victory, the evangelicals unquestionably form the Republican Party’s most reliable and aggressive base of supporters. Their leaders have been quick and aggressive in claiming full credit for the triumph and the press has been happy to play along. As so often in politics, the appearance, through repetition, becomes its own reality.

Leaders like the unabashedly direct Reverend Bob Jones III now demand, in the name of moral values and the political redemption they claim to have brought the President, that Bush “pass legislation defined by Biblical norms” and that he “leave an imprint of righteousness upon this nation that brings with it the blessings of Almighty God.” This is a tall order, and one fraught, like the war, with considerable political peril—from moderate voters, who, for example, support outlawing “partial-birth abortion” but oppose outlawing abortion itself; and even, perhaps, from Democrats who may one day come to focus on what they have gained in this election rather than what they have lost. After all the recriminations and all the analyses of how the party must change, the fact remains that the Democrats came very close to bringing off an almost unprecedented achievement: turning out an incumbent president in a time of war. They failed, but not entirely; they now confront a narrowly reelected president, encumbered with a grim and intractable war, constrained by a huge deficit of his own creation, and faced with increasingly extreme demands that will be satisfied only at great political cost.

—December 15, 2004

This Issue

January 13, 2005