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.
Has the electorate turned right? A bit. In the National Election Pool survey, the share of voters identifying themselves as conservative increased by 5 points over 2000, to 34 percent—which, however, returned the conservative-identified share of the electorate to the level of 1996 (33 percent). A plurality of voters consistently describe themselves as moderate.
Social conservatives and the media ballyhooed the National Election Pool survey's finding that "moral values" topped the public's list of voting issues, at 22 percent (narrowly edging out the economy and terrorism). In particular, the Religious Right spun the "moral values" answer as endorsing their agenda (against gay marriage, abortion, and stem-cell research). Actually, the concern with "moral values" is neither new nor, for most voters, specific. Bowman notes that the Los Angeles Times exit poll has regularly included "moral/ethical values" on its list of "most important issues," and that this choice emerged on top in 1996, 2000, and 2004. In 2004, the same proportion chose it as in 1996. Clearly, those 1996 voters were not up in arms against gay marriage and stem cells.
Most voters who plump for "moral values" seem to equate that term not with a particular policy agenda but with plain speaking, solid values, and a clear moral compass, all of which Bush offered. In 2004, the electorate barely moved on abortion, which only 16 percent of voters think should always be illegal; and 60 percent of voters supported gay marriage or civil unions (predominantly the latter).
Religious conservatives boast that they won the election for Bush. True, their turnout rose in 2004, but so did everyone else's. According to Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, evangelical Christians made up about 23 percent of the electorate in both 2000 and 2004. What happened in 2004, Lugo says, is that evangelicals and Catholics shifted more of their support toward Bush; about 78 percent of evangelicals voted for Bush this year, as compared with about 72 percent in 2000. Those votes certainly mattered, but only because the election was so close. In other words, marginal evangelical votes were important because the center did not move.
More precisely, the electorate's center did move, but only about 3 percentage points. That was about how much Bush improved his showing over 2000 in the average state he won twice, and it is also about the size of his margin of victory this year. It was enough to win him a close election, but hardly a breakthrough.
If anything structurally important happened in 2004, it was that the country moved to the right a little, but the Republican Party moved to the right a lot. John Kerry's Democrats aimed for the center and nearly got there, whereas Bush pulled right. He won, of course, but in doing so he painted his party a brighter shade of red—especially on Capitol Hill, and above all in the Senate, some of whose new Republican members seem nothing short of extreme.
The upshot is that Washington's governing establishment has moved further to the right of the country, and of the world, that Washington seeks to lead. A 50-50 country has produced a lopsided government and a sore temptation for Republicans to overreach. If they steer hard to starboard, they may capsize the boat.