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Once again, targeting the base works for Bush

Although final judgment is still to come, yesterday's balloting did in several instances validate important elements of the Bush political model.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Four years later, it is still a divided country — perhaps more sullenly than ever — but as a long election night bled into morning the evidence was clear that it is becoming a more Republican one.

President Bush, his fate for winning a second term still officially uncertain, commanded the popular-vote majority that eluded him in 2000. And in an impressive run of battleground states, he seemed to win validation for a campaign that unabashedly stressed conservative themes and reveled in partisan combat against Democratic nominee John F. Kerry.

On the same night, Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate and had the Democratic leader on the ropes. It seemed likely they would also make gains in the House, as voters in an age of terrorism seemed to let go of their 1990s preference for divided government and gave a narrow but unmistakable mandate for the GOP.

These gains came in the face of what Democrats for months had been touting as important advantages: a party unified early around its nominee, an energized base filled with grievance against the incumbent, unprecedented fundraising and voter mobilization efforts. They came despite some stiff headwinds for Bush, including a steady stream of bad news out of Iraq and a weak record on jobs.

The results are "an indication that we still are clearly a divided nation," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at California's Claremont McKenna College. But he added that Bush's strong performance in Florida and a clear tilt his way in Ohio, combined with the GOP strength in Congress, means that this rough parity has gained a more "Republican edge."

This tilt will mean little, of course, if Bush does not overcome lingering uncertainties — and likely legal challenges from Democrats — about an electoral college majority nearly within his grasp this morning.

Validation for Bush's political model
Although final judgment is still to come, yesterday's balloting did in several instances validate important elements of the Bush political model. This strategy has been based from the outset of Bush's term on carefully tending to 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.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Iraq war, Bush strategists have also calculated that there is not so much difference between base voters and centrist "swing" voters — both, they maintained, are concerned above all with national security and lower taxes. The strategy defied the wisdom of many Democrats since Bill Clinton, which held that swing voters were a distinct political entity and would not respond to a president as partisan as Bush.

As it happened, though, Bush's strategy last night worked much like it was supposed to, with most Republican-leaning states taken quickly off the table, and battleground Florida falling with relative comfort — 52 percent to 47 percent — into Bush's column. In Ohio, where Kerry and independent liberal groups waged an unprecedented campaign to register and turnout new Democratic voters, Bush responded with an unprecedented effort of his own that seems to have produced roughly as many Republican voters in rural and "collar county" suburban areas.

"One bit of conventional wisdom was that high turnout would benefit the Democrats," Pitney said. "Republicans may do it differently, but they proved they can produce high turnout, too."

Scott Reed, manager of Robert J. Dole's campaign in 1996, said few Republicans expected Bush to do so well, and said the evangelical vote was where he "really ran up the numbers." "This was part of their national strategy to play to the base, and that's what they did to close," Reed said. "They stuck with it. They didn't waver when there was a push from some in the party to move to the middle, and it paid off in spades."

Rifts exposed, not closed
If the wisdom among many political commentators proves right again, this election will likely do more to illuminate 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 — than bring them to closure.

This result was deeply confounding to centrist Democrats, not only because of the grim tidings for Kerry but because of what it suggested about the state of American politics. Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, a moderate Democrat who wins high approval ratings in a deeply conservative state, said Bush's approach may convince people in both parties that cultivating their bases is the right way to win elections — even though he regards this as a dubious model for governing.

"The center is still where most Americans are," said Warner, in an interview last night before the results were clear. "The thing that struck me about this race is how rarely either candidate appealed to people in the other party."

Ralph Reed, the Bush-Cheney campaign's southeast chairman, said Bush's strong performance shows there is not a trade-off between pursuing swing voters and the conservative base. "You don't win by the margins we did and not do much better than in 2000 among seniors, women, Hispanics and a lot of other swing voters," he said.

Different journeys
For both Bush and Kerry, last night's results were a culmination of journeys that weave back decades in American political history. In Kerry's case, there rarely has been a political figure whose date with the presidency was such a jarring combination of inevitable and implausible.

Four decades ago, the young man who worshiped John F. Kennedy and plainly styled himself after his hero was identified by friends and teachers as a man who would someday run for president. One year ago this week, Kerry was running 14 points behind former Vermont governor Howard Dean in New Hampshire polling, and was facing calls that he pull the plug on his ailing campaign.

His spectacular comeback in January in the Iowa caucus — after which his grasp on the Democratic nomination was never seriously in doubt — seemed to put him in a strong position to challenge Bush. But in the end, the same problems that were plaguing his candidacy a year ago were still haunting him this fall, Democrats said — an inability to connect at a personal level with many voters and articulate a clear message.

By unifying his party on an anti-Bush message, Kerry was never forced to clarify sharply such questions of what he would do in Iraq — if there continues to be violence there and he is unable to persuade more allies to join the American-led intervention — or what his priorities would be in the tension between deficit reduction and expensive proposals on health care and other domestic policies.

The examples of the past influenced Bush's strategy as well. His aides made clear from the beginning of his presidency he was determined to avoid the fate of President George H.W. Bush, who lost his bid for a second term in part because he lost the allegiance of party conservatives. President Bush certainly succeeded in keeping the GOP unified.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) said that however the election turns out, Bush made a choice that he did not have to make: "He could have chosen a 55 percent strategy, yet instead he went for a strategy that at best gets him to 50.001."

But early this morning, Bush had every reason to be satisfied with his calculations, which seemed on the cusp of bringing him a second term.