How Did He Do It?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, November 3, 2004; 11:35 AM

Yesterday's election actually wasn't as close as a lot of people had expected.

More than 58 million Americans voted for President Bush. That's about 3 million more than voted for Kerry, almost 8 million more than Bush got four years ago, about 7 million more than Al Gore got four years ago -- and even 4 million more than Ronald Reagan received in his 1984 landslide.

That's a lot of voters.

So how did the Bush campaign pull it off?

Much of the media is justifiably caught up in the dramatic endgame today, but here are some of the possible factors that emerge from the overnight press coverage:

• The Bush campaign super-charged the "moral minority." Exit polls showed 21 percent of voters said moral values were the most important issue -- and 78 percent of them voted for Bush. That's about 18 million Bush votes right there.

• Bush profited hugely from the dramatic social, cultural and geographic divides that we first saw so clearly in 2000, that were if anything deeper this time around, and that assured him of enormous swaths of rock-solid support.

• He was successful at stoking voters' fears about terror, vesting himself with the cloak of a commander in chief at war and defining his opponent as a weak and vacillating leader.

• He kept to his plan and kept his message simple. He didn't get bogged down in details and didn't admit mistakes.

• He divided -- and conquered.

Capitalizing on the American Divide

John F. Harris writes in The Washington Post that Bush's success validates the campaign's political strategy of "carefully tending the Republican Party's conservative base, and a governing strategy based more often on trying to vanquish political adversaries rather than split the difference with them.

"And, if the wisdom among many political commentators proves right again, this election likely will not resolve the country's deep cultural and ideological divides -- which surfaced vividly in the 2000 race and have persisted through terrorist attacks, two wars and a hard-fought election -- but give them new energy.

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "After four turbulent and tumultuous years, President Bush expanded his support but still divided the country along many of the same lines as in his narrow and disputed victory in 2000, exit polls of voters found Tuesday night. . . .

"[E]xit polls gauging voter sentiment showed that though he continued to enjoy overwhelming support from his conservative base, he had made only limited progress at expanding his reach among voters beyond it."

Brownstein adds: "One of the most intriguing trends was the increased tendency of voters to divide along cultural rather than economic lines.

"Kerry improved on Gore's showing from 2000 among voters with a college education; and even though Kerry stressed themes of middle class economic populism, Bush carried a majority of voters without college degrees, the survey found."

David S. Broder and Richard Morin write in The Washington Post: "The basic alignments of the electorate echoed those of 2000, according to exit polls taken yesterday. Men, whites, rural residents and the religiously observant were backing Bush, while women, minorities, urban dwellers and the less religious were going for Kerry."

The things that changed ended up not mattering so much.

"Among Kerry's successes last night was an apparent breakthrough among young voters." But their numbers were not sufficient to make a difference.

And, Broder and Morin write: "A pronounced shift came among moderates. In this polarized political climate, their share of the electorate dropped from about 50 percent in 2000 to about 45 percent this year, but the margin for the Democratic nominee increased from eight percentage points then to about 15 points now. Political independents also moved to the Democrats, with Kerry winning a slight majority whereas Gore had lost by a similarly small margin, according to surveys."

John Harwood and Jacob M. Schlesinger write in the Wall Street Journal: "Americans lined up to choose between George W. Bush and John Kerry -- and to flaunt their political divisions.

"White voters turned out to cast ballots for President Bush by double-digit margins. Hispanics backed Mr. Kerry by a similar margin, while blacks backed him by 10 to 1.

"Regular churchgoers were rock-solid behind the Republican incumbent. So were married voters with children and Americans who own guns. Those who care most about the threat of terrorism and issues related to moral values voted overwhelmingly to give the 43rd president a second term.

"But in a stark display of what separates the nation's political camps, voters who say they never attend church services sided just as strongly with the Democratic senator from Massachusetts. So did gay voters, single voters, union members and those most concerned about health care, jobs and Iraq."

Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe that Bush sought out voters "mainly by portraying his Democratic opponent as an untenable alternative -- a man he described as unfit for the presidency in a time of war -- rather than by trying to attract moderate voters to his side.

"Against a backdrop of lost jobs and mounting deaths in an unpopular war, Bush stuck to the original plan.

"Call it defiance or call it resolve, but it was a strategy that fit a man who believes in absolutes, trusts his small circle of advisers, and rarely suffers from self-doubt."

Here's a Washington Post graphic showing which groups went for Bush, which for Kerry. Here are more exit poll numbers to sort through, via CNN.

Red State/Blue State Deja Vu

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "By early this morning, only one state had switched sides, with Kerry taking back New Hampshire from the Republicans.

"Otherwise, there were no surprises as the states began to report. Bush methodically secured his base in the South and border states, capturing his home state of Texas as well as Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky. He won Indiana and West Virginia, which was a Democratic bastion until Bush won it four years ago. In the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, he rolled to a series of victories."

Capitalizing on Fear

Michael Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune: "In the end, it came down to a choice between fear and anger.

"Throughout his campaign, President Bush traded on fear, the threat of terrorism and a hot war in Iraq. Sen. John Kerry traded on anger -- about the war and job losses -- that was directed squarely toward the president. . . .

"Bush's campaign theorized that this election was a continuation of the fractious political divide that rendered the notoriously split decision of 2000. Only in the final two weeks of the campaign did the president even make modest appeals to Democrats and swing voters. It was a strategy predicated on holding ground, and as such, one of limited possibilities.

"But he didn't need much."

David R. Jones, political analyst, writes: "Going into the 2004 presidential election, two major issues posed potential threats to President Bush's prospects for re-election: the economy and the Iraq war.

"CBS News Exit poll results suggest that these issues were not the clear-cut silver bullet the Kerry campaign had hoped they would be. Instead, their effectiveness has been countered to a large degree by two issues emphasized by the Bush campaign: terrorism and moral values."

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Behind the Scenes at the White House

Daytime exit polls pointing toward a Kerry victory created a few very tense hours at the White House. But as night fell, the results brought relief and satisfaction. And by early morning, the only frustration was that they couldn't declare victory fast enough.

Bush adviser Karen Hughes went on CNN and described what it was like when the exit polls emerged.

"We were actually coming right into Washington on Air Force One as we got the first exit polls. Karl Rove got them over the telephone, and we were landing at Andrews Air Force Base, and the president was standing there watching over his shoulder as he was writing them down.

"And he looked at me, and he said, 'I'm surprised.'

"And I said, 'But it is what it is.' He was very sanguine about it. I don't think he completely believed them, because we had felt very upbeat going into this election. He had felt a great intensity and enthusiasm among voters all across the country.

"And so as we looked at them more and more throughout the afternoon, I think we began being very suspicious about some of them, because there were some very odd things, for example, in the state of Virginia and North Carolina. They showed a very close race, and it has subsequently turned out that President Bush won those -- both those states as expected very handily.

"We thought there were some problems with early polls. But he was very sanguine about it. He -- he has absolute confidence in the people of America, and he will trust their judgment."

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes for the New York Daily News: "President Bush never lost his cowboy strut yesterday, even as the Bush women wavered early -- and some aides in his inner circle began biting their nails. . . .

"The twins had been credited with keeping morale high for the First Family and inner circle of aides as they jetted around the nation in the final days.

"But as thoughts set in that their father could possibly suffer the fate of their grandfather -- and lose his reelection bid -- their trademark sunny moods clouded over, a campaign source told the Daily News."

But "as the night dragged on and some of the exit polling proved wrong in several states, the mood noticeably lightened," Bazinet writes.

Mike Allen of The Washington Post has lots of behind-the-scenes color from last night: "Bush's senior staff and their spouses set up for the evening in the Roosevelt Room, where they had an Internet terminal along with three television sets, including one often used for classified videoconferences. The guests were given red, white and blue score cards -- complete with a map and a table of closing times and electoral votes -- to follow returns. When White House senior adviser Karl Rove said he believed that Bush would win Ohio and Florida, they erupted in cheers.

"While most of Bush's political aides worked in Arlington, Rove set up his own war room in the Old Family Dining Room. Late at night, Bush dropped by."

Allen also describes last night's unusual photo-op: "As aides juggled nerve-racking election returns, President Bush invited reporters into his residence last night to record the tableau of the president, his family and his dog serenely watching the numbers that would determine whether he achieved the reelection that had eluded his father. . . .

"With cameras crowded into his West Sitting Hall on the White House's rarely visited second floor, Bush broke the ice by asking Barney, the family's Scottish terrier, if he had anything to say. First lady Laura Bush, his parents and others were crammed onto a sofa, with Bush's daughter Barbara perched on one arm."

Here's an AP photo from the photo-op, and the video.

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser, settled in the Old Family Dining Room to crunch vote counts, jokingly dubbing his spot 'the bat cave.' "

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times that "the cheer in the Bush camp turned into anger in the early hours of Wednesday when Senator John Kerry refused to concede the big prize of Ohio and the president found himself in limbo.

"At 12:45 a.m., after Fox News and then NBC called Ohio for Mr. Bush, senior staff members watching election returns in the Roosevelt Room hurried over to the White House residence, evidently to put finishing touches on the president's victory speech and prepare for his arrival at an election night party at the Ronald Reagan building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"Then Senator John Edwards, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, made a public appearance in Boston saying the Democrats would fight on, and the senior staff and the president were left hunkered down in the White House residence at 2:45 am."

Judy Keen and Richard Benedetto write in USA Today: "White House staffers groaned when they learned that Kerry's campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, had issued a statement at 1:26 a.m. Wednesday saying she believed that when all of Ohio's votes were counted, Kerry would win the state. Some of Bush's aides already were sipping white wine. Bush was still in the family quarters, waiting for Kerry to call him to concede."

Mike Allen has an update this morning: "The president, who is typically in bed by 10, stayed up until 5 a.m., huddling with White House senior adviser Karl Rove and other members of his staff to try to determine when he could make a solid case that he had won 270 electoral votes -- the finish line in the presidential election.

"Rove and White House communications director Dan Bartlett angrily pushed television networks to declare Bush the winner. Some networks had called Ohio for him and others said he had won Nevada.

"The combination of the two put him over 270, but no network had declared Bush the winner. So at 5:39 a.m., with only about 100 people left at the Republican celebration, White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. went to the rostrum to declare that Bush 'has won the state of Ohio' and that his 'margin is statistically insurmountable, even after the provisional ballots are considered.' "

Is It a Mandate or Not?

AFP reports: "Bush seemed in good shape to claim a fresh mandate for his war on terror, military operation in Iraq and domestic initiatives from tax cuts to faith-based governance."

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that if Bush wins "it would mark a momentous victory, but inconsequential mandate for the first president in history to win re- election after first losing the popular vote. It would also suggest that the anger and disgust that Democrats felt so certain would deprive Bush of a second term could not rival the loyalty to a wartime president.

"From the beginning, President Bush gambled that a focus on national security would make it hard for Americans to replace a wartime commander in chief. Sen. John Kerry staked his candidacy on the notion that dissatisfactions with the war in Iraq and the economy would make it difficult for the incumbent to win.

"In the end, both sides were right.

"Yet neither has been able to alter the fundamental divide that produced a near-tie election in the 2000 presidential election and has brought near parity between the two parties in Congress for most of the past decade."

What Next?

So can Bush heal the breach? Will he try?

Todd S. Purdum writes for the New York Times: "From beginning to end, this election was about George W. Bush, and he can claim that an apparently insurmountable lead in the popular vote vindicated his policies, his persistence, his personal qualities and his political strategy. He bet that voters who had shared a traumatic terrorist attack and two wars on his watch would stand by him, and they appeared to."

Purdum reminds readers that Bush "won by a whisker four years ago, then governed as if he had a landslide."

So, he asks, "what might a real mandate look like for Mr. Bush? Will he pursue his course undaunted, whatever the opposition may do? Or once again seek, as he promised four years ago, to 'change the tone' in Washington, and reach out to the one-quarter of voters in the electorate who described themselves as angry at his administration?

"The evidence is mixed, and second terms are notoriously unpredictable -- and disappointing. But Mr. Bush has never been a man to shrink from a fight, and he may well have a hot one on his hands soon enough, if there is a confirmation battle in the Senate to replace the ailing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist."

Gerald F. Seib writes in his Capital Journal column in the Wall Street Journal: "Once the dust settles from the election, look for much wringing of hands about how hard it will be to govern in a Washington almost evenly divided between the two parties.

"And yes, that's a tricky job. But it doesn't have to be as hard as conventional wisdom now holds. . . . If the new president is serious about this, here are four simple steps to start the process:

• "Pick some cabinet members from the other party. . . .

• "Establish personal relationships with the leaders of Congress from the other party. . . .

• "Identify and cultivate a band of sympathetic lawmakers from the other party. . . .

• "Have genuine back-and-forth with the press."

On CNN, Larry King asked Karen Hughes: "If President Bush does win, and it's obviously very close and a divided nation, can he bring this country together?"

Hughes replied: "Larry, I know he will work very hard to do that. I imagine one of the first things he would say is he understands that he would be president of all Americans, even those who did not vote for him.

"I think a second term would bring a renewed commitment to reach out. You know, I remember when we first came to Washington, the president worked hard. He reached out to Democrats. We had a number of Democrats to the White House. He worked with Democratic leaders like Ed -- Ted Kennedy on the education reform bill.

"And so I think with a new term, the president will make a renewed commitment to do that. I -- I know that he worries about the very polarized partisan atmosphere in Washington. He had a tradition as governor of Texas of working very closely with Democrats to get things done. And so I expect that he will bring a renewed effort to do that to a second term."

© 2004