The election of 2004 was one of the greatest of our era, but the post-election of 2004 was as bad as they come. Rarely have election returns been so widely but wrongly—in fact, dangerously—misconstrued.
A quick post-post-election exit poll: Which of the following two statements more accurately describes what happened on November 2?
A) The election was a stunning triumph for the president, the Republicans, and (especially) social conservatives. Because the country turned to the right, President Bush received a mandate, the Republicans consolidated their dominance, and the Democrats lost touch with the country.
B) Bush and the Republicans are on thin ice. Bush barely eked out a majority, the country is still divided 50-50, and the electoral landscape has hardly changed, except in one respect: The Republican Party has shifted precariously to the right of the country, and the world, that it leads.
Usual answer: A. Correct answer: B.
For the record, only time will tell, the truth is somewhere in the middle, and all that. Still, level-headed analysis—which is not what this year's post-election commentary produced—shows that every element of Statement A is suspect or plain wrong.
Begin with that stunning triumph. "Stunning" implies surprising. Any observers who were stunned this year lived in a cave (or on Manhattan's Upper West Side). All year long, month after month, opinion polls averaged to give Bush a lead in the low-to-mid-single digits, depending on when the poll was taken and who took it. Only toward the end, after the debates, did the gap narrow to that now proverbial "statistical dead heat." Even then, the statistically insignificant margin generally favored Bush. Another indicator was the University of Iowa's electronic election market, which lets traders bet on election outcomes; it consistently showed Bush winning with a percentage in the low 50s. Rarely has an election been so unsurprising.
A triumph? Only by the anomalous standards of 2000. By any other standard, 2004 was a squeaker, given that an incumbent was on the ticket. The last conservative, polarizing Republican incumbent who slashed taxes and campaigned on resolve against a foreign enemy won 49 states and received 59 percent of the popular vote. That, of course, was Ronald Reagan, who did not need to scrounge for votes to keep his job.
Most incumbent presidents win in a walk. The prestige and visibility of the White House gives them a powerful natural advantage. Bush enjoyed the further advantage of running against a Northeastern liberal who had trouble defining himself and didn't find the battlefield until September. By historical standards, Bush in 2004 was notably weak.
The boast that Bush is the first candidate to win a popular majority since 1988 is just pathetic. Bush is the first presidential candidate since 1988 to run without effective third-party competition, and he still barely won. No one doubts that Bill Clinton would have won a majority in his re-election bid in 1996 if not for the candidacy of Ross Perot.
A new political era? A gale-force mandate for change? More like the breezeless, stagnant air of a Washington summer. Despite much higher turnouts than in 2000, only three states switched sides—a startling stasis. Despite Bush's win, the House of Representatives barely budged. In fact, the Republicans might have lost seats in the House had they not gerrymandered Texas. The allocation of state legislative seats between Republicans and Democrats also barely budged, maintaining close parity. The balance of governorships will change by at most one (at this writing, Washington state's race was undecided). If that's not stability, what would be?
In the Senate, the Democrats were routed in the South and their leader was evicted. Those were bruising blows, to be sure; but it was no secret that the Democrats had more Senate seats to defend, that most of those seats were in Republican states, and that five were open. "Early predictions were that the Republicans would pick up three to five seats overall," notes my National Journal colleague Charlie Cook. In the end, the Republicans picked up four.
Here is the abiding reality, confirmed rather than upset by the election returns: America is a 50-50 nation. According to the National Election Pool exit poll (the largest and probably most reliable such poll), voters identified themselves this year as 37 percent Republicans, 37 percent Democrats, and 26 percent independents. That represents a shift in Republicans' favor, from 35-39-27 in 2000—but it is, of course, a shift to parity, not to dominance.
The political realignment that Republicans wish for is real, but it has already happened. Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, notes that Democrats enjoyed a roughly 20-point party-identification lead in the 1970s; that lead diminished to about 10 points in the 1980s and to single digits in the 1990s. Now the gap is gone. "If you see the closing of that kind of gap," Bowman says, "that is something very significant." The significance lies, however, not in either party's imminent domination but in both parties' inability to dominate.
Republicans do, obviously and importantly, dominate in Washington. That, however, has less to do with any tectonic shift in the country's partisan structure than with mechanical factors that have helped the GOP: the House gerrymander, the favorable 2004 Senate terrain, and Bush's two squeaker victories.