“I have won what I call political capital and now I intend to spend it.“
– George W. Bush,
Driving north from Tampa on Florida’s Route 75 on November 1, as the battle over who would hold political power in America was reaching a climax but the struggle over what that battle meant had yet to begin, I put down the top of my rented green convertible, turned the talk radio voices up to blaring, and commenced reading the roadside. Beside me billboards flew past, one hard upon another, as if some errant giant had cut a great deck of cards and fanned them out along each shoulder. Hour by hour, as the booming salesman’s voice of proud Floridian Rush Limbaugh rumbled from the radio, warning gravely of the dangers of “voting for bin Laden” (“Haven’t you noticed that bin Laden is using Democratic talking points?”), and other ominous voices reminded listeners of the “hundreds of votes” Senator Kerry cast “against our national defense” (“In a time of terror, when our enemies are gathering… can we afford to take that risk?”), I watched rush by, interspersed with the blaring offers of “Florida Citrus! One Bag $1!” and “Need Help With Sinkholes?,” a series of perhaps fifty garish signs announcing an approaching “Adult Toy CafÃ©!” and “Adult Toy Extravaganza!” and then “We Bare All!” and finally, the capper, “All Nude — Good Food — Truckers Welcome!”
It wasn’t long before this billboard parade had acquired its stark spiritual counterpoint — “Jesus Is Still the Answer!” — and by the time I reached the promised “extravaganza” — a sad and windowless two-room shack just off the highway, smaller than most of the signs advertising it — I found, standing just down the road from the pathetic little house of sin, a resplendent white church more than twice its size. In the world of American hucksterism, the sin may be the draw but the payoff’s always in redemption.
This was perhaps thirty-six hours before an army of self-interested commentators, self-appointed spiritual leaders, and television pundits hot for a simple storyline had seized on the answers to a clumsily posed exit poll question — more than one respondent in five, offered seven choices, had selected “moral values” as their “most important issue” — and used those answers to transform the results of the 2004 election into a rousing statement of Americans’ disgust with abortion, promiscuity, R-rated movies, gay marriage, late-night television, and other “Hollywood-type” moral laxity. Some, like the Reverend Bob Jones III, president of
“In your re-election, God has graciously granted
And yet the voters of Union County, Florida’s smallest, whom I found crowding the election supervisor’s office in tiny Lake Butler, seemed unaware that they had been impelled to vote by a newfound quest for redemption. In
Back in the car, I turned on the radio to find the
“Osama bin Laden cannot launch an attack on the
“Returning to the days of appeasement, trying to meet a ‘global test’ of world opinion, ignoring threats from hostile nations and groups is a deadly mistake we simply can’t afford to make…. The Democrat Party in this country is eager to point to the things bin Laden said and suggest that he is right — a man who happily murdered three thousand Americans and is eager to do so over and over and over again! You say, ‘Rush, I haven’t heard the Democrats say that.’ Oh, you can find it on their Web sites. You can find people who are going to vote for John Kerry who have said this. You can find people on various Democrat Web sites who are excited bin Laden said what he said. They’re hoping for an Osama smackdown of Bush, if I may quote one of the things I saw.”
Interspersed with Limbaugh’s extraordinarily fluid and persuasively deceptive tirade — heard, according to his home station in Sacramento, by “nearly 20 million people over 600 stations” –came the political advertisements, one after another, which turned skillfully around a concentrated version of the same plotline: First, the threat America faces today is as great as any in the country’s history. Second, that threat makes this election “the most important in history,” because if Americans make “the wrong choice” they could make themselves and their families more vulnerable. Third, therefore, Americans must vote, and must make “the right choice.” Fear is joined skillfully to risk: a risk that is personal and looming, and — most important — that could very well increase if the election goes the wrong way.
The script of the famous “Wolves” television ad, with its simple image of a pack of ravenous, circling carnivores readying for the attack, embodied this plotline in perhaps its purest form: “In an increasingly dangerous world…. Even after the first terrorist attack on
“John Kerry. The most liberal man in the Senate. The most liberal person to ever run for president. He voted to cut our military…. To severely cut our intelligence agencies…. He voted for higher taxes 350 times…. And now he wants to be our President…. We live in a dangerous world that requires strong and steady leadership. John Kerry is a risky choice for
This rhetoric of risk carries forward a narrative that Republicans began shaping soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and that came boldly to the fore as a political strategy the following May, when Vice President Cheney declared that the statements of several Democratic senators, who had rather timidly questioned some of the decisions made in conducting the war in Afghanistan, were “unworthy of national leaders in a time of war.” Though this bold shot across the bow essentially put an end to any overt Democratic criticism of the administration on the conduct of the war on terror, Republicans clearly realized that when it came to terrorism and national security, as Karl Rove observed during a speech to the Republican National Committee in January 2002, they could “go to the country on this issue, because [Americans] trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America.”
That autumn Republicans triumphed in the midterm elections, largely because they effectively exploited Americans’ apparent willingness to believe that the Republicans could better protect the country. This strategy was displayed most dramatically in Saxby Chambliss’s victory over the incumbent Max Cleland in the Senate race in
The attacks of September 11 restored to Republicans their traditional political advantage in matters of “national security” and “national defense” — an advantage the party had lost with the end of the Cold War — and Republicans capitalized on that advantage, not only by running President Bush as “a war president,” as he repeatedly identified himself, but by presenting a vote for John Kerry — whom the Republicans succeeded in defining (with a good deal of help from the Swift Boat Veterans, and from Kerry himself) as indecisive, opportunistic, and untrustworthy — as a vote that was inherently, dangerously risky. The emphasis placed on Bush’s much-promoted personal strengths — decisiveness, determination, reliability, transparency –served to base his candidacy at once on “moral values” and on “national security,” in effect making possession of the first essential to protect the second. Bush’s decisiveness was put forward as the flip side of Kerry’s dangerous vacillation, the answer to the threat of weakness Kerry was alleged to pose. This equation was dramatized, perfected, and repeated, with much discipline and persistence, in thousands of advertisements, speeches, and “talking heads” discussion programs on conservative networks, especially Fox. (In
Famously, as I have mentioned, more than one in five Americans — 22 percent — who spoke to pollsters as they left the voting places said, when presented with seven choices, that their “most important issue” had been “moral values,” and of these four out of five cast their votes for George Bush. On the other hand, 19 percent selected “terrorism” and another 15 percent chose “
Using an exit poll to draw precise conclusions from a national election is like using a very blurry magnifying glass to analyze the brushstrokes in a huge and complicated pointillist painting. Our tools for judging what elections “mean” are quite crude, depending as they do on the willingness of voters to speak to pollsters, on their ability to speak honestly about the choices they made, and on their particular talents for understanding and expressing their own motives. As we saw this year — when faulty exit polls that suggested an overwhelming Kerry victory significantly distorted election-day press coverage — they can often produce downright wrong conclusions. Despite the “scientific” feel that numbers lend to any analysis, there is more art to it than science and, despite the impression that election and analysis are starkly separate, much analysis, as the Reverend Jones’s letter to President Bush suggests, simply carries forward beyond the election a self-interested political narrative that preceded it.
If one stands back a bit and lets the drifting smoke of the pundits and the preachers and the exit poll analysts begin to clear, three interesting facts about the 2004 election stand out. The first is that the election was very close — historically close, in fact. The table below shows the margins of victory, in percentage of the popular vote and in electoral votes, of sitting Republican presidents who have won reelection during the last hundred years.
Margins of Victory: Republican Presidents Reelected During the Last Hundred Years
1904 Theodore Roosevelt: 17% Popular Vote; 196 Electoral Vote
1956 Dwight D. Eisenhower: 16% Popular Vote; 384 Electoral Vote
1972 Richard M. Nixon: 23% Popular Vote; 503 Electoral Vote
1984 Ronald Reagan: 18% Popular Vote; 512 Electoral Vote
2004 George W. Bush: 2% Popular Vote; 34 Electoral Vote
As these numbers show, incumbency is a huge advantage; nonetheless, Bush’s reelection was a squeaker, the closest for a Republican in more than a century . Four years after the historically close election of 2000, and after a hard-fought eight-month campaign in which the candidates, the parties, and so-called “independent” groups spent more than a billion dollars to woo voters, the electoral map hardly changed. Only three small states switched sides: the Democrats picked up