Election Review

Published in Public Affairs News - electoral post mortem

Election Review

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 04 November 2004

For the first time since 1964 a President and Congress of the same party have been re-elected. The first time a Republican President and Congress have both been re-elected in 104 years. It is also the first time since 1988 that a President has won an overall majority of the vote, and represents the largest ever vote for any candidate.

There is no doubt that this leaves the Democrats with a serious set of problems. And the absence of defeated Senate Minority Leader, Tom Dachsle, will not help the party come to terms with its situation.

The 2004 elections were ones the Democrats believed they were destined to win. The message that George W Bush was the first President since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net loss in jobs was not strictly true, in that the Household Survey count showed a growth in jobs. But the widely quoted, if less accurate, Labor Force Survey count supported the Democrat claim, which was almost never challenged in the media. It is certainly true that the recovery from the recession that Bush inherited has been patchy, and the feed through to jobs growth has been slow. And even when – as in 1980 – the parties are divided on foreign policy issues, it is usually the economy that decides elections.

Allied to this, it is an article of faith among Democrats that Bush is simple and inarticulate. The Democrat candidate was a war-hero, and presumably inoculated against an insinuation that he would be soft on terrorists. He also presented a clear and articulate case and won all three Presidential debates.

It is the perception that Kerry won the debates that will be most chilling to Democrat strategists. There is a widely held belief among political activists that “our” side only ever loses through poor presentation of its case. Left and right, activists tend to believe that their ideas would, inevitably, win over the electorate if only they were explained clearly enough.

John Kerry has probably been the clearest – though not of course the warmest – exponent of his party’s ideas since, at least, Franklin Roosevelt, and some have suggested that he is the single best debater ever to seek the Presidency. That is what makes his defeat so hard for Democrat strategists to explain. The electorate, it seems, heard and understood. But voted for the Republicans anyway.

Long term demographics are by no means positive for the Democrats. Southern and Western states are growing at the expense of the Mid West and the Democrat heartland in the North East. John Kerry’s lone success was to wrest the last Republican state in the North East – New Hampshire – into the Democrat column. While the West Coast states remain, at Presidential level, Democrat, the bulk of the desert and mountain states remain staunchly Republican, and the Kerry campaign abandoned every southern state, bar Florida, weeks before the election.

African-American and, especially, Latino voters form growing electoral blocks, but precisely as these groups grow numerous and more prosperous, they also grow more Republican. Bush’s share of the Latino vote grew from 35% to 44% and even his anaemic 9% share of black votes increased slightly, to 11%.

It is not likely that these trends will prove temporary. Mel Martinez – a former Bush Housing Secretary has become the first Cuban American in the Senate, and will be one of the leading figures in Hispanic politics. The Democrats must be very pleased to see Barack Obama joining the Senate, as the Party has been embarrassingly short of blacks in leadership positions. If Dick Cheney were to resign or die during the next four years, Bush could choose from Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, and former Congressman J C Watts to replace him. John Kerry could not have found a credible African-American candidate to be his running mate.

Republican success in reaching out to minority voters has not been based solely on promoting more blacks and Latinos than the Democrats have ever managed to. On social issues such as abortion and gay marriage Bush finds that his values align strongly with Catholic Hispanics and evangelical blacks. Black parents are among the most enthusiastic supporters of school choice. A strong Republican challenge on this issue may force Democrats to choose between their most loyal voting block and their biggest donors – the teachers’ unions.

The Grim Reaper also takes his toll on Democrat voters. Democrats generally dominate among retired voters, whereas the under 40s are mostly Republican. If there was evidence that voters became more liberal as they aged this would not matter – the electorate as a whole is ageing. But the Democrat seniors have mostly always been Democrats. As little as ten years ago Democrats held a majority of state governors, and state legislators and had far more registered supporters than Republicans. Now the Republicans lead on all three measures for the first time since the 1920s.

But it is not all rosy for Republicans either. The war on terror has renewed the alliance between cultural conservatives who dominate the south and limited government libertarians who remain a powerful force in the west. For the present, both will support the President’s foreign and security policies, though they may unite in opposition to his expansion of federal social programmes. In the long run, however, there could be real tensions between these groups, whose analyses of America’s problems fundamentally differ.

But these crises for both parties are in the medium term. Eyes will now turn to 2008. If Dick Cheney does not seek the Republican nomination – and it is likely that he will not – 2008 will be the most open election since 1952: the first with neither the President nor the Vice-President on the ballot.

Both parties will face ideological divisions, but also tactical ones. Should the candidate run as a Washington insider – probably a Senator, possibly a Congressman or cabinet secretary – or as an outsider – probably a Governor, or, in a case of Rudi Giuliani, a mayor?

Both parties may swing in the same direction, but one good rule of thumb is that if one party selects a Senator and the other a Governor, the Governor will win. Only three serving members of Congress have ever been elected to the Presidency: James Garfield, Warren Harding and John F Kennedy. Eerily, none completed a single term. Expect early Democrat front-runners Senators Hillary Clinton and John Edwards to face opposition from Governors Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

On the Republican side Senator John McCain will face powerful competition for the maverick vote from Giuliani. Expect Senator Bill Frist and Governors Bill Owens (Colorado), Tim Pawlenty (Minnesota), Bob Ehrlich (Maryland) and Mitt Romney (Massachusetts) to be among the runners. Jeb Bush of Florida will probably sit this one out.

Congressional elections, of course, will come first, with the mid-term elections of 2006. The Republicans have gained in two successive cycles. In the House that run will be hard to extend. Each time a party makes gains, it picks off the weakest of its opponents, until only super-safe seats remain. That said, Democrat gains, though probable, are by no means certain, and unlikely to threaten the fairly solid Republican majority. Gerrymandering is often thought to be conducted in party political interest, but is more normally done to protect incumbents of both parties. In the Senate the seats being contested are those last fought in 2000, when the Democrats won every marginal state and pushed control of the Senate to Dick Cheney’s casting vote. Some of these states will be ripe for strong Republican challenges.

As ever in the US, the end of one electoral cycle is the beginning of another.

Quentin Langley lectures in international public relations at the University of Cardiff and is Chair of IPR International

Copyright © Quentin Langley 04 November 2004

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