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Distributed November 5, 2004
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About 1,150 Words

Darrell M. West
Do Cultural + Security Issues = National Republican Era?
An Assessment of Election 2004

In 1896, Republican William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan and ushered in a Republican hold on political power that would last 30 years – until Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression. Is it possible that Republican strategist Karl Rove is helping history repeat itself?

President George W. Bush’s re-election victory over Democrat John Kerry plus the GOP pickup of five seats in the U.S. Senate and one seat in the U.S. House signals that Karl Rove’s vision of a Republican era is a big step closer to realization. Combined with the 11-state affirmation of a ban on same-sex marriages, the 2004 election offers tantalizing hints about how cultural and security issues are reshaping the national political landscape.

For several years, GOP strategist Karl Rove has speculated that the current political era is similar to elections of the late 19th century. According to his theory, there was a series of very close elections between the end of the Civil War and 1896. The parties were very closely divided and the country experienced some of its most tightly contested and controversial outcomes as it struggled to deal with race, regional politics, and the aftermath of the Civil War.

The victory of Republican presidential candidate William McKinley over populist William Jennings Bryan in 1896 resolved this stalemate in favor of the GOP, and Republicans went on to dominate the politics and policy choices of the next 30 years. It was not until Herbert Hoover’s terrible performance in response to the Great Depression that Democrats were able to regain ascendancy and dominate the following decades.

Rove has made no secret of his goal for elections in the opening years of the 21st century to return to this pattern. His hope is that Republicans will emerge as a majority party in firm control of the presidency, Congress, and the courts. The $64,000 question is whether the elections of 2000, 2002, and 2004 represent fulfillment of the Rove vision.

Bush’s victory in 2004 rests on several factors. He successfully turned his election into a referendum on terrorism. National polls demonstrate that Bush won 85 percent of the votes of those who cited terrorism as their most important issue, compared to 15 percent for Kerry. Seventy-eight percent of those naming moral values as the most important consideration in the election cast ballots for Bush, compared to 19 percent who did so for Kerry. In contrast, Kerry’s top issues were the economy and jobs (he received 81 percent of the vote of individuals saying this was their most important issue), education (76 percent of their vote), and Iraq (75 percent).

These results suggest how potent a combination cultural values and security concerns have become. While American elections traditionally have focused more on domestic economic concerns, Bush successfully redefined the national agenda away from the economy, education, and health care to cultural and security issues. In so doing, he took advantage of voter anxiety in the post-September 11 world and repositioned his party as the one that would best defend America against both foreign and domestic threats.

It may be no coincidence that in each of the 11 states where voters were asked to express preferences on the issue of same-sex marriages traditional, conservative values prevailed. The issue played to the Rove strategy of distinguishing the two parties on cultural wedge issues and GOP arguments that Democrats (not Republicans) were out of touch with mainstream values.

Evidence of Republican success in building its coalition can be found in demographic trends in the 2004 elections. Kerry ran well among African-Americans (receiving 90 percent of that vote), Hispanics (56 percent), women (54 percent), and union households (61 percent).

However, despite Democratic anger over Bush’s policies, many of these numbers are no better than Al Gore’s showing in 2000. For example, Gore received 54 percent of the women’s vote, 90 percent of the African-American vote, and 62 percent of the Hispanic vote. With the extreme voter polarization and clear Democratic dissatisfaction over the Bush administration, one would have expected Kerry to do better among these traditional Democratic constituencies.

It is noteworthy that Bush received 37 percent of the union vote in 2004, 76 percent of the evangelical vote, 59 percent of the votes of gun-owners (who comprise 41 percent of the overall electorate), 43 percent of first-time voters, 21 percent of the gay vote, 41 percent of Hispanics, and 55 percent of the support of military veterans. In essence, Bush lost no ground between 2000 and 2004 with traditional Democratic audiences and energized his conservative cultural, economic, and security base.

One of the most important results in 2004 was voter turnout. Before the election, experts predicted that somewhere between 117 and 121 million voters would cast ballots (up from 106 million in 2000). If this vote had materialized, it would have broken a 30-year record for voter turnout and probably propelled Kerry to victory. Among first-time voters, Kerry won a 55 to 43 percent margin over Bush.

However, these optimistic projections of a big turnout did not materialize. Turnout did increase to around 113 million, but not to the 121 million level anticipated by some observers. This helps explain why Bush won a popular vote victory nationwide by 3.5 million ballots.

It was not just angry women, minorities, and liberals coming out, but Republicans were able to mobilize first-time evangelicals, gun-owners, small business owners, and cultural conservatives. The idea that a bigger turnout would aid Kerry was somewhat correct, but not nearly to the extent anticipated before the election.

Bush’s victory is impressive not just at the presidential level, but in the U.S. Senate. In that chamber, Republicans picked up four seats, giving them a 55 to 44 advantage over Democrats, with one Senator being an Independent who often votes with Democrats.

Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle was defeated, and Republicans won all five of the Southern state vacancies left by retiring Democrats (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana). This reinforces the emerging pattern of the South moving solidly Republican. It is becoming increasingly difficult for Democrats to run strongly in the South. The big Republican advantage in the South moves the GOP closer to a veto-proof and filibuster-proof Senate. It also marginalizes moderate Republicans.

Republicans appear to have picked up one seat in the U.S. House. This gives them a 13-seat advantage in that chamber. With ironclad discipline and straight party voting on most controversial subjects, this outcome insures that many of the Bush policies will not be rolled back. In addition, combined with GOP gains in the Senate, Republicans will be in a stronger position to pursue their agenda of an “ownership society” in the United States.

With clear-cut control of the presidency, the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, and many governorships around the country, Republicans are tantalizingly close to fulfilling Karl Rove’s vision of a national GOP era. Similar to 1896, Bush ran a campaign that crystallized differences between the two parties and took a clear stance on several important issues. By triumphing in many (albeit close) races, Republicans have institutional control of government that will allow them to cement their hold on power and to follow through on their agenda.

The risk for any party in control of government is that it misunderstands its mandate and over-reaches its own political support. Although Republicans are in control of government, their presidential victory was razor-thin and several of the congressional and gubernatorial victories were by tiny margins.

There is a distinct possibility that Republicans will misinterpret their party victory as a policy victory. Although the GOP triumph in 2004 is impressive in purely political terms, Republicans should not conclude Americans have endorsed their agenda.

It is clear from national polls that on many domestic issues such as education and health care that Kerry did very well with voters who thought those issues were the most important ones facing the country. Republicans should not confuse electoral victories with agreement on every policy issue.

Democrats face some difficult soul-searching following their losses at the presidential and congressional levels. Some will criticize Kerry for having centered this election on foreign policy as opposed to the traditional domestic issues of the economy, health care, and education that generally undergird Democratic presidential victories. Critics will say he should have not talked so much about his Vietnam experience and should not have devoted so much effort to contesting Bush’s foreign policy but should have confronted Republicans on issues where Democrats often have an edge with voters, such as education, health care, and the economy.

Others will complain about the quality of the campaign run by Kerry. The charge will be that his message was not clearly focused and his campaign was slow to react to GOP attacks. Rather than let Bush criticize him as a liberal, he should have pointed out that Republicans are out of the political mainstream on several key issues. Critics will say that if he had run a better campaign, Democrats could have won.

However, that critique ignores the fact that Democrats lost not only the presidential race, but also suffered losses in the Senate, House, and governorships. The Republican victory was not just a reflection of Kerry’s deficiencies as a candidate, but of a successful GOP strategy to focus the agenda on issues such as cultural values and security issues where they were seen as the party better equipped to handle those concerns.

The biggest risk for Democrats is that the party will splinter between forces who wanted the party to confront Bush on all fronts (the Howard Dean wing of the party) and centrists who wanted to blur differences in some areas and confront Bush on selected topics that might have been advantageous to Democrats.

If this happens, Karl Rove’s vision becomes a reality. Republicans will divide and conquer the Democrats as easily as Sherman marched through Georgia. Republicans will cement their hold on the levers of government and be in a strong position to dominate succeeding elections around the country. Democrats will have to think very carefully about what happened in 2004 and what it means for future races.

Darrell M. West, professor of political science, is director of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions at Brown University.

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