The re-election of President George W. Bush by more votes than he received in 2000 puts to rest questions about the legitimacy of his administration. This time he won not only the electoral college but also the popular vote, by more than three million votes. Most states went for the same party as they did four years ago, but in general John Kerry did worse than Al Gore, especially where it countedin the swing states of Florida, Ohio, Iowa and New Mexico.
But the closeness of the race showed how polarized the country is. Passions were high, and so was the turnoutalmost 60 percent of eligible voters, up from 54 percent in 2000. The conventional wisdom had been that a bigger turnout would help the Democrats, since it is the young, the poor and blacks and Hispanics who tend not to vote. Democrats expended great efforts getting out the vote, and in places like Philadelphia they were successful. On the other hand, Kerry’s hope for a big turnout among younger voters did not materialize, although those who did go to the polls voted for Kerry.
Republicans also got out their vote, especially white evangelical Christians, who gave 78 percent of their vote to Bush. The Bush campaign worked closely with evangelical church leaders, using church rolls and directories to find, register and mobilize voters. Catholics also contributed to the Bush victory, with 52 percent of their vote (versus 47 for Kerry), continuing the trend, since 1932, of going with the popular-vote winner. Hispanic Catholics outside of Florida went strongly for Kerry, but white Catholics gave Bush 56 percent of their vote.
While Democrats thought the war and the economy would put the president out of office, the country thought otherwise. Even Ohio, which lost 200,000 jobs in the last four years, squeaked by for Bush. It’s not only the economy, stupid. Many lower-income people voted for Bush: 37 percent of those earning under $15,000 a year and 41 percent earning under $30,000. Exit polls showed that 22 percent of voters said moral values was the most important issue. It ranked slightly ahead of other issues, including the economy (20 percent) and terrorism (19 percent). In 11 states where there were referendums against gay marriage, the voters overwhelmingly cast their votes in favor of the proposals. But the pro-life movement experienced a major defeat in California, where a referendum to fund stem cell research with $3 billion was passed with 59 percent of the vote.
The Bush camp campaigned more skilfully than the Kerry camp, but the Democratic Party faces more fundamental challenges for the future than just running a better campaign. The South has completed its transition from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. Not only did the president sweep the South; the Republicans also picked up significant senatorial seats there. But the Democrats’ bad showing was not only in the South. Democrats failed totally in communicating with rural and small-town America, where religion and patriotism are taken seriously. Even Tom Daschle, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, went down to defeat in South Dakota. Unless the Democratic Party becomes more open to churchgoers and family values, it is going to be a minority party. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party scares many ordinary Americans, even though it promotes economic policies that are in their interest.
The challenge of the Republicans now is to govern. With increased strength in the Senate and House, the buck stops with them. What will they do about abortion? How will they win the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism? What will they do about rising energy prices, a ballooning federal deficit, rising health care costs and the coming crisis in Social Security? Sound bites win campaigns, but they do not provide real solutions to tough problems. Neither party presented realistic proposals on these issues, because they did not want to scare voters with painful solutions.
President Bush does not come out of this election with an overwhelming mandate, but the lack of one did not stop him from successfully pushing his agenda during the last four years. He would do well to reach out with bipartisanship, but the polarization reflected in the campaign will make that difficult. And as time goes by, he will face more restlessness in his own party. Fiscal conservatives are appalled by huge federal deficits, and social conservatives who won him this election will no longer be satisfied with mere promises. Meanwhile, members of Congress know that they will be around long after this administration goes into the history books. As soon as the president becomes a lame duck, politicians in both parties will start jockeying for the next election.
The nation faces serious problems that will require both parties to work together. The time for partisan posturing is over. Time is running out, and delaying tough and unpopular decisions will only make matters worse. The election is over; let the governing begin.