30 Years' War

by John B. Judis | November 15, 2004

George W. Bush's victory shows that the political strategy that conservative Republicans developed in the late 1970s is still viable. Bush won a large swath of states and voters that were once dependably Democratic by identifying Republicans as the party of social conservatism and national security. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry rallied a powerful coalition of minorities and college-educated professionals based in postindustrial metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In the future, this coalition may triumph on its own. But, in this election, Democratic successes in the Northeast, upper Midwest, and West could not make up for Republican successes in the South, the border states, the Southwest, and the Great Plains. Fittingly, the election was decided in Ohio--a state that combines the metropolitan North and the small-town South. Bush's strategy evolved out of Republican travails during the long era of New Deal Democratic dominance. Republicans understood after 1932 that they could no longer win elections simply as the party of business. They had to attract working-class and middle-class voters. After World War II, many Republicans tried mimicking New Deal liberals, but, in the '70s, conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms instead appealed to white, working-class voters enraged by Democrats' support for civil rights, feminism, and peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union. Reagan won landslides as the candidate of anti-communism and cultural conservatism. But, in the 1990s, with the end of the cold war, Bill Clinton, armed with a new centrism and a common touch, won back some of these Democratic voters. He also took advantage of the growing backlash against Republicans occurring among college-educated voters in metropolitan areas. In the Clinton years, the Deep South became almost uniformly Republican, but California, New Jersey, and Illinois moved into the Democratic column. Bush has refashioned Reagan's strategy to revive the older Republican majority in the face of these defections. Like Reagan, he has appealed to business and the wealthy with tax cuts, but he has also presented himself as a simple Texan of conservative faith whose favorite philosopher is Jesus, able to appeal to voters who believe the country is in moral decline. And, because of September 11, he was able to rehabilitate the GOP's reputation as the party of national security. Although that rehabilitation was complicated by the failures of the Iraq war, Bush this year was able to reclaim the Reagan mantle and peel away traditionally Democratic white, working-class, rural and suburban voters. Bush recreated the Reagan-era coalition by combining Brooks Brothers and Wal- Mart, the upper class and the lower middle class. He won wealthy voters--those who make over $200,000--by 63 to 35 percent. But he also won voters who had not completed college by 53 to 47 percent. If minorities, who voted predominately for Kerry, are excluded, Bush's margin among working voters was even higher. He reached these voters, who made up the bulk of his support, through opposition to gay marriage and abortion and through patriotic appeal as the commander-in- chief in a war against terrorism that seamlessly unites Osama bin Laden with Saddam Hussein. According to the Los Angeles Times, Bush's voters accorded the most importance to "moral/ethical values" and "terrorism/homeland security" in deciding their vote. Kerry's Democratic coalition, by contrast, was composed of low-income minorities and upscale, college-educated professionals--two groups that, not coincidentally, were the least likely to accept the president's contention that the Iraq war was part of the war on terrorism. In national exit polls, Kerry got about 70 percent of the nonwhite vote. He tied Bush among voters with college degrees and bested him by 55 to 44 percent among voters who had engaged in postgraduate study. Kerry's voters, as one might expect, cared most about jobs and the war in Iraq. Luckily for Bush, however, voters without degrees still outnumber those with them. In Colorado, Kerry won voters with college degrees by 50 to 48 percent and those with postgraduate study by 55 to 43 percent. But Bush, by winning voters without degrees by 58 to 41 percent, was able to carry the state fairly easily. Through his moral and martial appeals, Bush also won rural voters--once a Democratic constituency--by 59 to 40 percent. And he did extremely well among exurban voters. Bush couldn't win back states like New Jersey and California, but, through his emphasis on religion and family values, he strengthened the Republican hold on the South and won states that had gone for Clinton, including Kentucky, West Virginia, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Ohio. Much of the white working class in these states consists of evangelicals who live in small towns. According to a National Annenberg Election Survey, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, and Ohio are among the top 15 states in percentage of white, born-again, evangelical Protestants. By opposing gay marriage and abortion, Bush formed a majority coalition that combined these voters with traditionally Republican farmers and businesspeople. Kerry won not just big cities, but most of the large metropolitan areas dominated by professionals and immigrants. Kerry did very well in the West, Northeast, and parts of the Midwest because of the growth of high-tech metro areas. Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, and New Hampshire are now solidly in the Democratic fold. Illinois, New York, and California have become as thoroughly Democratic as Massachusetts. But, outside these states, Kerry's support among urban voters failed to carry the day. In North Carolina, Kerry actually did better than Al Gore in the state's key metro areas--Gore lost Charlotte's Mecklenburg County in 2000, but Kerry won it 52 to 48 percent. Nevertheless, Bush again won the state by about 13 percent, because he slaughtered Kerry outside Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, winning 64 percent in the Greensboro area, 60 percent in the rural, small-town east, and 59 percent in the mountain west. Kerry's troubles extended to the battleground states that contained significant numbers of evangelical and rural voters. While Kerry took metropolitan South Florida and Orlando's Orange County, Bush won the Sunshine State largely because he was able to increase his margin from 2000 in rural and exurban counties, particularly outside of Tampa and Orlando. In Hernando County, for example, Bush won 6 percent more of the vote than he did in the last election. Kerry did better than Gore in Ohio's Franklin County, where Columbus and Ohio State University are located, but he failed to build on Gore's margin in greater Cleveland. Meanwhile, Bush enjoyed high turnout among evangelicals in southeast and southwest Ohio. He got 65 percent of the vote in Butler and Preble counties in the southwest and 58 percent in Washington County in the southeast. And he carried Cincinnati's Hamilton County with over 53 percent. Bush deserves some credit for his success in this election. Since World War II, incumbents have only lost when they have faced challenges within their party. That was George H.W. Bush's problem. But his son oversaw a united party in spite of considerable grumbling among conservatives in Washington about his foreign policy. Bush has also continued to enjoy support from his initial success against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, particularly among white, working- class voters. Bush, they often say, makes them feel "safer." But Bush was also fortunate in his opponent. John Kerry was an able debater, and his experience in Vietnam and on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee partially neutralized arguments that would have been made against other Democrats like former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. But Kerry, an aloof New Englander, operated at a distinct disadvantage among white, working-class voters. Unlike Bill Clinton, he had trouble convincing voters that he "felt their pain." In interviews conducted on the eve of the election, we asked white, working-class Bush supporters in Martinsburg, West Virginia, what they thought of Clinton. Even those who praised Bush for his "family values" said they had voted for Clinton and thought he was an "excellent president." But it wasn't Clinton's politics they preferred; it was Clinton himself, despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Gore had exactly the same problem with these voters in 2000. The Democrats need to find a candidate that can talk to both PhDs and tractor- trailer drivers. If they do this, the Democrats will be able to win presidential elections. Kerry, after all, came very close to winning this time despite his inadequacy as a candidate. Democrats showed that they can hold their own in states like Colorado (where Democrat Ken Salazar was elected to the Senate), Arizona, Nevada, and Virginia. In many of these states, demography is on the Democrats' side. Colorado is going to become more like California and less like Utah or Montana, and Virginia is going to become more like New Jersey and less like South Carolina. The future of Ohio is Franklin County, not Butler County. Democrats also showed that they can compete in raising money without relying on corporate contributions and that the Internet is an important vehicle for organizing. Bush himself is likely to suffer the malaise and confusion that has beset every second-term president since Franklin Roosevelt. The suppressed revolt over foreign policy in his party is likely to break out. As a lame duck, he will have to contend with a House leadership unwilling to be pushed around. And he will be faced with decisions--including appointments to the Supreme Court-- in which he will have to choose between infuriating his core constituencies or inciting more GOP defections in states like Colorado and Virginia. Bush got himself elected by waging a successful culture war; but that is not going to help him in Washington--or around the world--for the next four years.

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