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No Transformation

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Even though President Bush and his Republican Party won a decisive victory, Election 2004 was hardly the transformational contest that some are making it out to be.

If the country has gone from being a 49-49 nation, as the Almanac of American Politics' Michael Barone noted two years ago, to a 51-48 nation, that is an important shift but hardly a massive one.

Iowa and New Mexico moved from "blue" to "red," while New Hampshire went from "red" to "blue" and Ohio narrowly stayed light red. This time, the presidency hinged on 130,000 votes in Ohio, out of 120 million cast nationwide.

The GOP's impressive four-seat Senate gain should make that party proud, but the fact that every pickup was in a state Bush carried in both 2000 and 2004 hardly suggests transformation. Rather, what we saw was the continuing realignment of the South: Only two Southern Democrats -- Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana -- are left in the Senate.

But in the House, had it not been for the redistricting in Texas, Republicans would have lost two seats, not gained three. Finally, in state legislatures, Republicans dropped from having a 64-seat edge nationally to having a 12-seat deficit.

So this was hardly an election that charted a new course. There were a host of reasons for this election's outcome. Democrats did an amazing job of getting their vote out, but the other side did even better. In the battleground states, Democrats pulled in the number of votes that they thought were sufficient to win, yet failed to match Republican totals.

The Republican Party apparatus and the business community, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, along with social conservatives, had unprecedented success in getting out a very high turnout, exceeding the herculean effort on the Democratic side.

Interestingly, according to Emory University's Alan Abramowitz, turnout in the 12 swing states increased 17.3 percent, from 31.2 million in 2000 to 36.6 million in 2004. In the strong-Bush states, it went up 14.9 percent from 37.6 million in 2000 to 43.1 million in 2004. Yet in the 14 strong-Kerry states, turnout rose only 1.9 percent, from 36.6 million to 37.4 million.

While the disparity between turnout in deep-red states and deep-blue states obviously did not affect the outcome of the electoral vote, it explains Bush's 3.5 million popular-vote advantage.

I suspect that Republicans in red states, even though they knew that their votes didn't matter in terms of the Electoral College, turned out because they were for someone -- Bush. Democratic voters in blue states often were less in favor of Kerry than they were against Bush. Their failure to show up masked what would otherwise be yet another very, very close race for the popular vote.

The Kerry campaign clearly made strategic mistakes -- for example, allowing too much of the campaign to be dominated by the war in Iraq, thus diminishing the focus on the economy, Bush's Achilles' heel. Kerry talked too little about another serious vulnerability for Bush, health care. And that void probably decreased both the level of turnout among women and Kerry's share of the female vote.

Women normally constitute 51 percent of the national vote; this time, they were 49 percent. And although Bush carried the male vote by 11 points, Kerry won among women by only 3 points, down from Al Gore's 11-point edge among women in 2000.

Kerry failed to talk to women about the issues that they cared about in a way they found compelling.The Kerry campaign did get much better toward the end. Bush's campaign advisers noted that their rival's message got sharper and his verbal gaffes diminished once the Clintonistas arrived to lend a hand in early September.

I still question whether Kerry got any votes that just about any other Democrat challenging Bush under these circumstances wouldn't have also gotten. Some of his defeated rivals for the Democratic nomination might have done a better job of communicating a compelling economic message in Ohio and Iowa.

It's a shame that elections aren't like computer games. Then we could replay them to see whether a different nominee or a different sales pitch could have gotten the Democrats the extra votes they needed in Ohio.

 
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