Tuesday night, President Bush will deliver the annual State of the Union address. As he enters the second year of his second term, it's a good time to take a fresh look at how he won his return to the White House -- and what that victory might say about his party's prospects in the next presidential campaign.Hope you did.
After election night in 2004, the pundits were quick to explain Bush's defeat of Democrat John Kerry. They stressed the division of the nation into "red" and "blue" states; they discussed the dominance of "moral issues" in the vote; they reported the president's claim of a "mandate" for his policies, particularly the war in Iraq.
Now, though, we have better evidence available -- the National Election Study, a scientific survey of almost 2,000 voters conducted every four years since 1948 by leading scholars. With this data in hand, we can more accurately test, and often dispute, the glib conclusions of election night.
The results show three main influences on voters' behavior: their partisanship, their judgments about Bush's first term, and their views on the candidates and their policy prescriptions.
The single best explanation of the 2004 results, in fact, is the same as that in any other election: party loyalty. Nine of every 10 Democrats voted for Kerry, and even more Republicans (93 percent) voted for Bush. Statistically, we can explain more than half of the final margin of victory simply on the basis of Bush's stronger command of his base.
But party loyalty doesn't explain everything. If it did, John Kerry would be giving the State of the Union address: Exactly half of the total electorate either identifies with the Democratic Party or leans in that direction, compared to 40 percent who prefer the Republican Party, and 10 percent who are "pure" independents.
Bush won because of two variations on party loyalty. First, Republicans were more likely to vote. Among those who came to the polls, the Democrats' numerical advantage was almost completely eliminated: An overall 50-40 advantage was reduced to 48-46 among actual voters (independents, as usual, were much less likely to cast their ballots). Second, Republicans were more loyal -- not much more, but it was enough.
Beyond party identification, the 2004 election can be best explained as a verdict on Bush's first term. The president gained votes on his conduct of the war on terror and on voters' favorable assessments of their economic condition. He lost just as many votes on his Iraq war policy. (In fact, if the election had been decided only on the Iraq issue, Bush would have lost.) Despite Bush's claims to the contrary, there was no mandate in the election for the continuation of his war program -- but also no mandate for immediate withdrawal.
After looking back, the voters also looked ahead, at the policies and the men they might prefer over the next four years. Although pundits tended to emphasize one issue or another, none actually had much resonance with voters. For example, abortion, Social Security and general foreign policy had no real effect on the outcome.
Bush did win some votes on his tax program, perhaps adding 1 percent or so to his share of the national vote. But the ballyhooed issue of gay marriage had little effect. At most, it was only half as important as the tax issue. (It could be true, however, that the issue had an indirect effect, by stimulating the greater turnout and loyalty of Republican partisans.)
Finally, the voters evaluated the candidates themselves. Bush gained considerably on evaluations of leadership. But Kerry also had personal strengths. Voters saw him as more knowledgeable than Bush and thought he cared more about their problems. If the election had been decided only on personal traits, contrary to conventional wisdom, Kerry could be president today.
These findings have considerable implications for the course of American politics in the remaining years of the Bush administration and the next presidential election. For one thing, they show the shrewdness of the Republican Party's strategy in 2004 of consolidating its base and stressing efforts to bring these devoted supporters to the polls. But the same strategy may not be sufficient in 2008.
However cohesive, the Republican base is not large enough to win on its own. Bush needed small increments beyond his partisan foundation, and these may not be available to the party's candidate in 2008. Why? Terrorism will be less threatening, we all hope, as the memory of 9/11 fades. Issues of homosexuality, of limited effect even in 2004, will likely have even less impact as gays become more accepted socially. There may be less optimism about the economy. And the president's reputation for leadership and moral character will be harder to recapture for a new nominee of a party now tarnished by scandals.
There is only one sure conclusion before Tuesday's presidential speech: The political state of the union remains uncertain.
Gerald M. Pomper is a professor of political science emeritus at Rutgers University and the author of "Ordinary Heroes and American Democracy."
Monday, January 30, 2006
The State of Bush's Union
This by one of my old professors. I enjoyed it:
Posted by weinish at 11:27 AM