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Election 2004's Myths & Mysteries

By Sam Parry
December 10, 2004

George W. Bush’s record-smashing vote totals in Election 2004 have two possible explanations that the mainstream press has kept off the table: the first is that somehow the vote tallies were manipulated; the second is that negative campaigning is far more effective than almost anyone wants to admit.

Without looking at these two options, it’s simply hard to comprehend how Bush got 61.7 million votes, shattering Ronald Reagan’s old record of 54.5 million from his landslide victory in 1984. What makes Bush’s numbers even more incredible is that he got them as John Kerry also surpassed Reagan’s record with 58.5 million votes.

Comparing Nov. 2’s numbers with Election 2000 is equally stunning. In four years, Bush increased his total vote by about 22 percent, even as Kerry topped Al Gore’s margin by almost 15 percent. In earlier presidential elections when one party has managed to boost its vote by 20 percent or so, the other party has suffered widespread defections.

But what is perhaps most astounding is that Bush chalked up these vote totals after compiling one of the poorest records of any recent president: a sluggish economy, huge government deficits, a weakening dollar, a catastrophic war in Iraq and loss of respect for the United States around the world.

‘Values’ Voters?

Many political pundits have put forth the explanation that Evangelical voters assured Bush a second term because they see him as the defender of moral “values.”

But this conventional narrative can’t fully account for Bush’s 2004 vote. No less an expert than Bush’s political guru Karl Rove estimated that 4 million Evangelical voters stayed home in 2000, meaning that even if they all voted in 2004 for Bush, that would still leave more than 7 million votes to explain.

Plus, think back on Election 2000 when the Republican base was burning with a fierce determination to oust the hated Clinton-Gore crowd. Why would millions of Republican voters stay home in 2000, yet flood the polling places in 2004 despite the discouraging results of Bush’s first term and the turnout enthusiasm on the Democratic side?

Yet, instead of working to make sense of Bush’s vote totals and examining the extraordinary outcome on a county-by-county basis, the mainstream news media has mostly dismissed questions of voting fraud as Internet-driven “conspiracy theories.”

Democratic Myths

Besides the mysteries of Bush’s vote totals, there were Democratic myths that exploded on Nov. 2.

The Democrats’ axiom that high turnout virtually guarantees a Democratic win proved false – assuming, of course, that Bush’s votes were real. Based on the official results, it would seem that expensive voter registration drives by Democrats and liberal groups may have upped the Democratic turnout, but also served as a rallying point to get millions of new Republican voters to the polls.

The lesson appears to be that the mechanical function of registering new voters – while a worthy undertaking in its own right – cannot substitute for the lack of a strong message or a media infrastructure to communicate with voters. If Bush did bring in almost 62 million votes, then a big part of the answer must be that the potent conservative media machine kept the Republican base energized and focused.

That reality should be a factor in Democratic post-mortems and give pause to liberal voter-registration groups that already are calling for simply more of the same for 2006 and 2008. The Democrats invite a repeat of 2004 if they simply go for a bigger investment in “grassroots organizing,” while ignoring the lack of a left-of-center media apparatus that can even begin to match up with the potent conservative media.

Another bracing lesson for Democrats is that Bush amassed his vote total after waging an overwhelmingly negative campaign built more around tearing down John Kerry than touting Bush’s own achievements. Bush’s extraordinary numbers flew in the face of the old political adage that negative campaigns only succeed by depressing the overall vote, not by inspiring more voters to go to the polls.

In 2004, Bush appears to have generated his electoral groundswell by tapping into a populist disdain for liberals, an attitude that has transformed many formerly progressive regions in Middle America into hotbeds of angry conservatism. This anger against the supposed “liberal elites” continues to boil even though the Republicans control all three branches of the federal government and conservatives possess their own powerful media. [For more on this phenomenon, see Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?]

Bad Advice

Bush’s success also debunked the campaign advice from many Democratic consultants who insisted that – based on their focus groups – voters wanted a positive campaign, not negative attacks. “Don’t be too shrill,” the consultants said. “Don’t attack the person, attack the policy.”

In retrospect, the Democrats appear to have put themselves in a hole during the summer when their “positive” convention didn’t move the poll numbers. Meanwhile, the “negative” Republican convention gave Bush a double-digit boost in the polls.

The two conventions also marked a strange reversal of traditional roles. Usually the challenger attacks the incumbent’s record, while the incumbent brags about his accomplishments. But in the conventions of 2004, Kerry, the challenger, mostly went positive, while Bush, the incumbent, went overwhelmingly negative.

So, instead of focusing the American people on why Bush shouldn’t get a second term, the Democrats concentrated on why Kerry deserved a first term.

Part of the Democratic thinking was avoiding a feared media firestorm if the convention followed the supposed “Bush bashing” of Bush opponents such as “Fahrenheit 9/11” director Michael Moore and comedian Whoopi Goldberg, who touched off a minor riot among conservative bloggers when she made a crude pun about Bush’s name.

‘Hate-Fest’

Facing Republican charges that the Democrats were planning a Bush “hate-fest,” Kerry’s convention managers toned down the rhetoric, even excising anti-Bush comments from speeches. Instead they stressed the feel-good message: “Hope (or help) is on the way.”

As part of this positive strategy, Democrats picked youthful Senate candidate Barack Obama to give an upbeat keynote address that avoided any mention of the sitting president. Kerry’s team could have picked a senior Democrat – the likes of Robert Byrd or Ernest Hollings – who would have had the stature to make the case that a second Bush term should be unthinkable to Americans who care about their nation’s future.

But the convention managers acted as if Bush’s failures were so obvious they didn’t need reciting. For tens of millions of Americans, those failures apparently weren’t that obvious at all.

The Democrats also chose to spotlight Kerry’s Vietnam War service, which further made Kerry the issue, not Bush. Despite these red-white-and-blue themes, many Americans watching this strange convention must have concluded that even the Democrats didn’t think Bush was so bad.

In bending over backward to avoid a Bush “hate-fest,” the Democrats ended up with the first “bounce-less” convention in modern political history. They also left themselves wide open to a fierce conservative counterattack against Kerry as weak, lacking principles, saying whatever his advisers tell him the voters want to hear, ready to “flip-flop” when faced with tough choices.

Swift Boat Tales

Brazenly, the conservatives even assailed Kerry’s Vietnam War record, which included winning the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and three Purple Hearts. The pro-Bush Swift Boat Veterans for Truth accused Kerry of fabricating his tales of heroism. They portrayed him as a liar, a coward and a traitor. They even denigrated the wounds that led to his three Purple Hearts.

Though largely false, these Swift boat attacks were heralded by the powerful conservative news media and promptly crossed over into mainstream news outlets, such as CNN. Indeed, CNN’s intensive coverage of the Swift boat charges may have been the most important factor in giving the anti-Kerry smears credibility with a broad cross-section of the American public.

Even when many of the Swift boat accusations were shown to be lies – after credible eyewitness accounts verified the facts of Kerry’s heroism – the perpetrators of the political fraud were not taken to task by CNN or other outlets that had given the stories such currency. For much of America, Kerry remained damaged goods, which set the stage for the Republican convention.[For more on the Swift boat case, see Consortiumnews.com's "Reality on the Ballot" or "Bushes Play the 'Traitor' Card."]

In dramatic contrast to the milquetoast Democratic convention, the GOP convention was all red meat. Rather than celebrating Bush’s record, the Republicans ripped into Kerry’s.

Bush’s keynote speaker was the opposite of the young and hopeful Barack Obama. The Republicans picked the elderly and bitter Zell Miller, a Democratic senator who had turned against his party. Miller devoted his prime-time address to castigating Kerry as unfit to be president.

The Republican delegates cheered every slam against Kerry with taunts of “flip flop.” Some delegates wore Purple Heart band-aids to mock Kerry’s war wounds. In effect, the Republican convention became the “hate-fest” that Republicans had predicted the Democratic convention would be. But the irony passed almost unnoticed in the mainstream press.

Even the Purple Heart band-aids served mostly as a reason for journalists to reprise the criticism of Kerry’s war record, rather than an opportunity to comment on the outrageous tactics of the Republicans. Reporters, who had fumed over the supposed unfairness of Moore’s documentary or the tastelessness of Goldberg’s jokes, didn’t confront Republican leaders with accusatory questions about whether the band-aid-wearing delegates should be condemned.

‘Values’ Talk

Another irony was that Bush emerged from his nasty convention as the protector of the best of American “values,” with Kerry somehow judged to be lacking in morality and decency. Bush was viewed by many Middle Americans as a regular guy – despite his history of privilege and his avoidance of military service in Vietnam. Kerry was deemed the effete elitist despite his decorated service in Vietnam [For more on Bush's history, see Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.].

Kerry failed to overcome these animosities although he did speak repeatedly about the importance of strong “values” in guiding government action. Indeed, Kerry mentioned “values” in almost every speech as did his vice presidential running mate John Edwards, although they defined the concept differently than Bush.

Kerry and Edwards cast “values” not in strictly religious terms but in the context of wise government policies seeking to ensure that families can afford health care, that senior citizens have the medicines they need, that the environment is protected, that students can access educational opportunities, that workers can find good-paying jobs, that soldiers face the dangers of war only when absolutely necessary.

While lacking Bush’s overt Christian “signaling,” the Kerry-Edwards “values” also were rooted in Christian teachings: care for the sick, be good stewards of God’s creation, provide for the least among us, seek peaceful solutions whenever possible. But the Democrats’ “value” talk apparently did them little good.

Victim Theme

Instead, conservative leaders appear to have made substantial progress in casting fundamentalist Christians as the victims of an intolerant secular elite led by liberal Democrats. Some Christian Right leaders even depict the founding American principle of separation of church and state as an assault on the rightful recognition of the United States as a “Christian nation.”

This victimization theme is an important piece in understanding the anger that drives today’s U.S. conservatives. Even when sporting Purple Heart band-aids to ridicule Kerry’s war wounds or seeking a constitutional amendment to ban gays from marrying, conservative Christians see themselves as the victims, not the bullies.

So, when John Kerry stakes out a classical position on the separation of church and state, he is part of that “secular elite” denying Christians their rightful place in charge of the U.S. government. Kerry represents those “anti-Christians” who would place the science of evolution over the Biblical version of creation, or block mandatory prayers in public schools, or defend a woman’s right to have an early-term abortion.

By contrast, George W. Bush has won the support of many Christian conservatives by blurring the line between church and state, supporting a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, allowing books on creationism to sit beside scientific explanations for the Grand Canyon, and moving toward more church-state collaboration with his “faith-based initiatives.”

Lessons Unlearned?

So what do the Democrats have to do to compete for power? The same consultants are back giving advice about adding more “values” talk to their speeches, registering more voters, and positioning the party more to the right.

But that advice may miss the real lessons of Election 2004, which might suggest a more aggressive Democratic response:

--First, ascertain whether there was any rigging of the vote, either through systematic suppression of balloting in Democratic precincts or through Republican computer manipulation. Washington insiders might laugh at these possibilities, but millions of Americans believe that George W. Bush, again, cheated his way to victory. If those doubts aren’t addressed, many Americans won’t go to the polls in 2006 and 2008, thinking that the fix is in and why bother.

--Second, begin a genuine conversation with the American people; don’t just memorize more Bible passages. While the Republicans may be manipulative in their politics, they have used the pervasive conservative media – especially talk radio – to engage the public in a give-and-take on political issues. The feedback has proved invaluable when calibrating political themes.

--Third, address the conservative caricature of liberalism head-on. Again, the Republicans have a huge advantage with the conservative media reaching virtually every corner of America and especially dominant in Middle America where outlets of information are more limited than in the urban centers of the coasts. Liberals also can’t count on the mainstream press to give them a fair shake. If they ever hope to win, liberals have no choice but to build a media infrastructure of their own.

--Fourth, tell it like it is to the American people, not only about Bush and his administration, but level about what the liberal vision is for the United States. If the country’s political system is to be revitalized, liberals must counter-attack in what the conservatives call the “war of ideas.”

Relying on stealth politics to sneak back to power just won’t work. It will only look phony and defensive, opening Democrats to a new – and not entirely false – round of accusations that they don’t know what the stand for and just say what they think people want to hear in a craven bid to get elected.

The clearest lesson of Election 2004 may be that there are no shortcuts for the Democrats to reestablish themselves as America’s governing party.

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