How Bush Won

Charles Noble



s it really the case that, as the British tabloid the Daily Mirror famously put it, nearly 60 million Americans were simply too “dumb” to understand the implications of reelecting George W. Bush? It seems so. Even though few Americans had personally benefited from the regressive social and economic policies of the president’s first term, and few were likely to benefit from his imperial ambitions, a majority of voters saw fit to give Bush four more years to make their lives even worse. But as appealing as it is, folly does not constitute a sufficient explanation of the 2004 election.

One alternative account can be summarily dismissed: contra the Republican spin, there is little evidence that most of these voters were endorsing a conservative policy agenda.[i] Bush’s approval ratings were low on the eve of the election and have remained low, hovering around 50%, a remarkably weak endorsement for a just reelected sitting president. While there were certainly millions of voters enthusiastic about Bush’s program of economic reaction and social atavism, most were not. Voters themselves reject the idea that Bush was sent back to Washington to continue his good works: in a late January 2005 Los Angeles Times survey, 43% thought the country was “worse off because of George W. Bush’s economic policies” than better off (only 26% who thought things had gotten better) and nearly three quarters thought that Bush did not “have the mandate from the American people to push through his agenda.” So much for “political capital.”

History reinforces the point. Compared to the sixteen other incumbent presidents who had run successfully for reelection (or for a second term after having become president due to the death or resignation of their predecessor), Bush’s 3.5 million vote (2.9%) margin was exceedingly small. In fact, every other president who had run for and won a second term (with the exception of Harry S. Truman in 1948), did far better, beating their opponent by at least 6%. Bush’s margin of victory in the Electoral College (6.9%) was equally tenuous – the second lowest since 1804.

Nor do Congressional elections indicate that the long feared Republican realignment has finally happened. The Republicans did pick up four seats in the Senate and six in the House. But House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Tx) successful, if highly irregular, effort to redraw the Congressional districts in his home state accounts for nearly all of the Republicans’ net gain in the lower chamber. Outside Texas, the GOP gained just two seats. The Republican bump in the Senate was also regional, based on GOP victories in all six open seat races in the South. Nationwide, Democratic senatorial candidates outpolled Republican candidates by 3 million votes.

But Democrats can take little comfort from these facts. There are also clear signs that the party is in deep trouble. Despite an almost perfect storm of bad news – from the debacle in Iraq, to the precipitous decline of America’s standing in world opinion, to an economy that was working only for a privileged few – Democrats could not close the deal. Herein lies perhaps the most important lesson: unless the Democratic Party does a far better job explaining to voters what it is about and how it would make their lives better, it risks permanent minority party status.

Fear and Loathing in America

Bush’s success was based in part on turnout and in part on a very effective campaign to manipulate fear and loathing – fear of terror, and loathing by social conservatives of the kind of cultural changes that are transforming the American landscape. Skillfully exploiting these issues, Bush was able to add to the traditional Republican coalition enough independents and wavering Democrats to become the first candidate since 1988 to actually win a majority of the popular vote.

Turnout first. Despite an unusually intense effort by the Democratic Party, organized labor, and allied groups like Americans Coming Together to mobilize voters, Republicans did a much better job getting their supporters to the polls. While turnout increased everywhere, it increased far more in “red states” (up 5.7% from 2000) than in “blue states” (up only 1.3% from 2000). This increased Republican turnout in red states accounts for about one-third of Bush’s margin. Equally important, whereas Republican turnout increased in both battleground and non-battleground states, Democratic turnout increased mostly in battleground states.

Increased Republican turnout was partly a result of effective organization –including close and highly coordinated contacts between Republican party operatives and Christian churches – and partly the result of Bush’s very effective use of cultural issues to talk to these churchgoing Americans. Culture proved particularly important to evangelical Protestants who had previously not participated in politics or who had shown divided political loyalties. Once thought to be natural Democrats because they tend to be poorer and less educated, these Americans saw the 2004 election not as a referendum on Bush’s economic policies (which had so harmed them) or even the war in Iraq, but as a chance to publicly defend traditional social, particularly religious, identities against secular culture and, in particular, changing attitudes about sexuality.[ii]

But even on cultural questions, claims of a mandate are wildly exaggerated. While it is true that exit polls showed that 22% - a plurality – had chosen “moral values” as the one thing that mattered most to them in the election (and 80% of these voters chose Bush), 20% of voters in the same exit surveys chose the “economy/jobs” and 19% chose “terrorism.” In fact, a smaller percentage of voters cited “morals” in 2004 than in prior elections.[iii] And when asked shortly after the election to select the one issue that might have mattered most to them in deciding how to vote, the largest number of respondents – 25% - chose the war, not morals. 14% chose the economy and jobs. Only 9% chose morality.[iv] Still, while sixty million Americans didn’t vote to take Darwin out of the schools and gays and lesbians off of TV, the culture war did help Bush to sell himself to enough working class voters to win.

Bush also succeeded in convincing half the electorate that Iraq was either directly or indirectly linked to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and that the U.S. had a compelling reason to invade and occupy it. 55% of voters said that the Iraq war was part of the war on terrorism and 51% approved of Bush’s decision to go to war. Voters who believed these things were almost certain to vote for Bush.[v] Most damning for Kerry, nearly six in ten voters - including Kerry voters -  said that they did not trust the Democratic candidate to handle terrorist threats. In other words, despite daily disclosures of duplicity, blundering, and callousness among the president’s top military and security advisers, even after the Duelfer Report’s widely publicized conclusion that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, millions of people thought that Bush, not Kerry, would be a better custodian of national security.

What Kerry Could Have Done Differently

Many antiwar Democrats have argued that Kerry should have been able to turn public unease about Iraq in his favor. After all, a majority of voters (52%) thought that things were going badly for the U.S. in Iraq and that the war had actually made the U.S. less secure. In poll after poll before the election, clear majorities showed little enthusiasm for Bush’s unilateralism and great interest in working closely with allies and the United Nations.[vi]

Why couldn’t Kerry capitalize on this discontent? To a significant extent he did. Americans unsettled by the war and its impact on national security were far more likely to vote for him. The problem was that these voters weren’t quite as loyal to Kerry as were the war’s supporters to Bush. Bush won 90% of those who thought the war was going “well;” Kerry won 82% of those who thought it was going “badly.” Bush won 90% of those who thought that Iraq war had made the U.S. more secure; Kerry won 80% of those who thought it had made America more vulnerable. While these are not large differences, Bush’s electoral victory was constructed out of just these sorts of small margins. The bottom line for Kerry was that the war on terror proved the “most important” issue to more people than did the war in Iraq, and Bush got most of these people’s votes.

Certainly, Kerry bears some responsibility for letting Bush get away with this. Kerry’s tortuous effort to explain his own decision first to authorize and then to oppose the war did little to reassure the public about his steadfastness in a time of great fear. But as the challenger, Kerry had fewer options than many believe. The fact that the U.S. had not been attacked since 9/11 may have proved more decisive than anything either candidate said, reassuring many people that Bush was getting the job done, even if they didn’t know (or care to know) exactly how. More than half of all voters said that America was safer in 2004 than it had been in 2000, and four out of five of these chose Bush.

Rather than devote the Democratic National Convention to a slugfest with Bush over their respective military credentials, Kerry would have been far better off shifting the debate to the economy. Not that he didn’t try. But there was something horribly amiss in how he went about it, even after Bush had prepared the ground for him. In the January 2005 LA Times poll cited above, Americans made clear that they distrusted Bush’s class instincts: 51% thought that he cared more about “rich people” than everyone else; 62% thought that he cared more about “protecting the interests of large corporations” than “ordinary working people.” But Kerry did next to nothing to capitalize on that sentiment. This is truly remarkable given the economy’s anemic economic performance. Even with yawning budget deficits, and clear signals that Bush wanted to undo social security, on Election Day more voters (49%) thought Bush was better able to handle the economy than Kerry (45%).

It’s not that Kerry didn’t have lots of things to say about jobs, health care, and other bread-and-butter issues. It’s that he proved unable or unwilling to clarify the organizing principles that animated his long list of concrete proposals. In contrast to Kerry, Bush was the visionary, a compassionate conservative who wanted to turn America into an “ownership society.” On Bush’s watch, everyone would own a piece of the pie. Kerry wanted to…. Even now, after the dust has settled, it’s hard to finish the sentence. When asked why they had voted for Bush, his supporters said that they liked him, his leadership, his values, and his goals. Kerry’s most fervent supporters struggled to name what the candidate stood for. Asked why they backed their candidate, Kerry voters were much more likely to name what they hated about Bush, from his dishonesty, to the war in Iraq, to the regressive economic and tax policies. Fewer could say what they liked about Kerry himself, other than that he wasn’t Bush. The problem for Kerry was that in America, as George W. had learned from his father, it’s better to stand for something, even if it’s wrong, than to be seen as standing for nothing at all.

Where to Now?

There has been a good deal of hand wringing since Election Day about the Democrats’ prospects. There should be. Karl Rove and Grover Norquist intend to use Bush’s second term to lock in Republican control over the federal government. That’s the point of privatizing social security, eliminating the progressive income tax, restricting union organizing, expanding medical savings accounts – by killing off the welfare state and fatally weakening unions, the Republicans intend to eliminate the institutions and organizations that support the Democratic Party. Unless Democrats figure out a coherent and compelling counter strategy, Rove and Norquist may succeed.

Predictably, the party’s centrists, notably Al From and his Democratic Leadership Council, have sought to capitalize on Kerry’s defeat by hauling out the oft-repeated but still to be demonstrated argument that Democrats lose because they run too far to the left. The DLC thinks that the Democrats should stick to programs that expand working and middle class families’ access to things like health care and education without significantly increasing federal spending, taxes, or business regulation. Free trade figures prominently in their strategy precisely because it gives multinational corporations what they want while promising to raise American standards of living. Now that Bush has shown that culture matters too, these centrists also want the Democrats to take “morality” more seriously: talk more about God, even rethink the party’s historic stand on choice.

While it’s not a bad idea to be respectful of other people’s cultures and values, particularly if you want them to listen to what you have to say, the DLC analysis and strategy make very little sense. For one thing, apart from Walter Mondale in 1984, it’s hard to figure find a liberal heading up the ticket since 1976. And while the DLC is correct to point out that Bill Clinton won as a centrist in 1992 and 1996, three other centrists – Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, and Al Gore – lost. It’s also important to remember that Clinton’s 1992 victory owed as much to Ross Perot’s appeal to independents and even to disaffected Republicans as it did to Dick Morris’ strategy of “triangulation.” As far as Kerry goes, only a willful misreading of his voting record allowed the Republican National Committee to label him the Senate’s “most liberal” member. He was much closer in instinct and on policy to the DLC than From admits.

In any case, it’s not clear how much a “Republican-light” strategy would buy and at what cost. A less fundamentalist version of Republicanism might appeal to southern moderates and swing voters in the battleground states of the Midwest. But it might also alienate a significant part of the Democrats’ base, resulting in little if any net popular vote gain. As for “morals voters” in the battle ground states, it’s hard to believe that a sudden religious conversion by the Democratic Party is going to convince many on the Christian right that the devil’s spawn have finally found the light. Keep in mind that many of these voters are more than willing to criminalize abortion even if, as Bush’s “partial birth” abortion ban would have done, criminalization puts the very life of the pregnant woman at risk. More likely, these people will see the Democrat’s death-bed conversion for what it is: pandering.

As important, by shifting even further rightward, the Democratic Party would find it that much harder to do the very things that the party needs to do in order to make a lasting impression on voters: clarify what it stands for and, once in office, deliver the things voters want, including accessible and affordable health care, high quality, low cost education, and well paying jobs. Ironically, in worrying so much about being seen as too extreme, the Democrats are ignoring the most important lesson that the Republicans learned after 1964. Radical ideas are not necessarily a liability if, in promoting them, the party projects a clear, even exciting message about change. Republicans are winning elections as visionaries with a radical reform program, not as defenders of the status quo. Bush won in 2004 despite being widely perceived as significantly to the right of the mainstream because he convinced a fair number of Americans that he would not only protect them, but change America in important ways. In the end, and not surprisingly given the public’s lack of attention to issue specifics, Americans like their candidates to promise big things.

Which brings us to the one real option that Democrats have, the one that they seem intent on not trying: economic populism. As much as most of the party’s insiders refuse to admit it, the Democrats need to push hard for a substantial reformation and rehabilitation of government’s role in the economy, including frankly redistributional tax and spending programs to reduce economic inequality, a frontal assault on corporate cronyism, and regulatory programs that protect Americans from the human and environmental costs of free market capitalism.

The Republican edge in turnout in 2004 remains a great shock and disappointment to the left. It has always been the conventional wisdom that those Americans who stay home on Election Day are or at least should be part of the Democratic base. Even Republicans have thought that true until quite recently. That’s why they have spent so much time and money trying to suppress the vote and erect barriers to registration. But, as Rove knew, some non-voters, even the downscale non-voters thought to be natural Democrats, could be convinced to vote Republican with the right issues. But there are still many potential Democrats waiting to be mobilized and a straightforward appeal to their economic interests appears to be the only way to do that.

Certainly, as the party’s moderates warn, this is “old fashioned” class struggle. Exactly, and there is ample evidence that it still works. On poll after public opinion poll, Americans endorse populist economic reforms, from increasing the tax burden on the rich to fair trade policies that protect jobs and the environment. Indeed, whenever the public is presented with clear choices - to privatize social security at the cost of reducing guaranteed benefits, or to more strictly regulate health care providers in order to increase access and lower costs, for example - they reject the free marketeers preferred solution. Why not offer these voters what they want: a vision of economic justice in which Democrats champion the interests of working people against corporate interests?

Unless the Democrats force the economic issue back to the top of the agenda, culture will continue to dominate it. Republicans focus on “morals voters” not only because there are votes to be gained on this ground, but because the tight focus on culture keeps the conversation off the economy, the one place where Rove and Norquist fear the Democrats. They know that cultural issues trump economic issues in the minds of middle Americans because Democrats haven’t forced economic issues back on the agenda. Yes, Kerry offered dozens of position papers on the economy. But voters who checked out for a compelling story about economic decline, reconstruction, and structural reform were left with little to hold onto and certainly nothing that could have competed with Bush’s biblical drama about cultural sin and religious redemption.

But would economic populism really win elections? Would it allow the Democrats to take back the White House itself? For all the centrists’ fear about alienating the middle, a close look at Kerry’s electoral (as opposed to elite) coalition suggests that little would be lost by moving to the left on the economy. It’s hard to believe that Democratic voters in Democratic strongholds such as Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Illinois, New York, California, and Massachusetts would defect from the party because it demanded a more equitable economy, more corporate accountability, universal health care, low-cost college tuition, and strict environmental regulation. Nor are core Kerry constituencies – well educated, upscale urban professionals, racial and ethnic minorities, union members and their families, young voters - likely to be scared off by progressive economic policies.

The Midwestern working class might be similarly impressed by an appeal to their class interests. While white working class men broke for Bush by 25%, white working men in unions broke for Kerry by 21%.[vii] Clearly, union members had a different perspective on the election, most likely provided by the unions themselves, which poured millions into educating and mobilizing union households. The Democrats might be able to play a similar role for non-union working class voters – if those voters believed of Democrats what union members believe of unions – that they are willing to go to bat for them. In fact, several Democratic electoral victories in 2004 lend support for this view. The party actually did quite well among downscale voters. Montana – a red state - elected a populist economic governor. There are several very liberal senators from the Midwest, including Bryon Dorgan of North Dakota and Richard Durbin of Illinois.

Still, economic populism is not likely to solve the southern problem. The South is and will remain particularly difficult for Democrats no matter what they do. Republicans are now successfully appealing not only to southern white conservatives, but to Southern white moderates, including younger white southerners. Bush proved unstoppable in the South, winning 58% of the popular vote in that region (and all of the region’s electoral votes) and an amazing 1064 of 1154 Southern counties. Considering that Bill Clinton won 510 of these same Southern counties in 1996, this was truly an impressive feat.

Clearly, many white southerners have found in the Republican Party’s hyper-patriotism, militarism, opposition to affirmative action, patriarchalism, and religiosity something that speaks to their sense of self as much as to their pocketbooks. Given this, an economic populist strategy is unlikely to deliver the region. But it could help chip away at Republican margins, particularly in House and Senate elections that Democrats must win if they are to take back the Congress. In fact, there are reasons to believe that states such as Virginia, North Carolina, and Arkansas, and maybe even Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia, are within reach. In each of these states, a program of social liberalism and economic populism could appeal to those college-educated professionals who think it important that their children learn evolution in school, and working class voters who think it important that there children go to college.

Embracing economic populism would cost the Democrats dearly with one significant constituency: the corporate elites and business PACs who, for various reasons, have helped fund the party. Ironically for a party of the people, the Democrats have come to rely increasingly on deep-pocketed millionaires and business interests to finance their campaigns. This was former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe’s sorry legacy. By encouraging Democrats to fish in the same waters as Republicans, he discouraged them from doing what Republicans had done: develop a network of small donors willing to give over and over again because they believed in the party’s mission.

But 2004 showed both the limits of McAuliffe’s strategy and the wisdom of the Republicans decision to rely more on grass roots supporters. Faced with a Republican candidate so shamelessly pro-business and a Congress so firmly under the control of free market ideologues, corporate PACs saw no reason to fund both parties. The Democrats continued to receive money from investment bankers and multinational corporations that preferred one or another aspect of Kerry’s plan, or wanted access to him just in case he got lucky. But unlike recent election cycles when corporate PACs hedged their bets by giving generously to both candidates and parties, the biggest spenders among them gave overwhelmingly to the GOP in 2004. But thanks to Howard Dean and to groups like, the Democrats discovered that their grass roots supporters would also send money – even do fieldwork for them - if they had a reason to. It’s obviously time for the Democrats to give them one.


[i] “Americans Remain Polarized Over Bush.” Los Angeles Times. January 19, 2005, A:1

[ii] 61% of the 41% of voters who said that they attended church at least once a week voted for Bush, as did 78% of the 23% of voters who call themselves “white evangelicals” or “born again” Christians. Culture helped Bush win even outside of traditional conservative strongholds Turnout, for example, increased 6.5% in the eight red states with a gay marriage ban on the ballot (compared to 5.7% nationally). Unless otherwise noted, all poll numbers are from 2004 exit polls. These can be found at

[iii] 35% in 2000; 40% in 1996. “The Triumph of the Religious Right.” The Economist. November 11, 2004.

[iv] The results of a Pew Research Center survey, reported in Charles M. Madigan. “It Was the War.” Chicago Tribune. January 2, 2005.

[v] 85% of those who approved of the war voted for Bush; as did 86% of those who said that terrorism was their most important issue.

[vi] See for example, “While Strongly Endorsing the Iraq War Public Rejects a New US Role Marked By Unilateral and Military Approaches.” (College Park, Md.: University of Maryland, Center on Policy Attitudes and the Center for International and Security Studies, Program on International Policy Attitudes. April 29, 2003).

[vii] David Moberg. “Lessons for Labor.” The Nation. December 27, 2004.


Charles Noble is the author of The Collapse of Liberalism: Why America Needs a New Left (Rowman and Littlefield), Chair of the Department of Political Science and Director of the International Studies Program at California State University, Long Beach.