T.S. Eliot once famously wrote that "April is the cruelest month." In this autumn story, it's November that turns out to be the cruelest month for Democrats. As has so often been the case since the 1960s, the Democrats came out of their convention with a polling lead and high hopes. But more often than not, they have been destined for disappointing, even shocking defeats. This year, incumbency, social issues and a regional match-up favoring President Bush tipped the balance narrowly his way.
So what did we witness on Nov. 2? Did we see the last gasp of the Nixon-Reagan-Bush coalition that formed in the late 1960s? Or is there now a new triumphant George W. Bush-GOP coalition based on conservative social values, tax cuts and foreign policy? Are the conservative whites in the Heartland and Sun Belt who helped give Bush his 51 percent majority part of a new multi-ethnic Republican Party that will rule for the next generation?
In the Los Angeles Times, Max Boot, a former editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, lauded Bush's "solid McKinley-style victory" and argued that Bush and his political strategist, Karl Rove, were on the verge of "an era of Republican dominance." Rove's theory is that Bush can build a new Republican coalition like McKinley did of traditionally Republican businesspeople and new immigrant workers (from Southern and Eastern Europe in 1896 and from Latin America and Asia today).
On the other hand, Chicago Tribune columnist Stephen Chapman (a Republican who endorsed Kerry) and another Republican, CNBC.com contributor Bill Fleckstein, argue that the president will struggle due to awful circumstances. Chapman said, "It is hard to remember an election in which victory would be such a dubious prize." According to Fleckstein, "the silver lining may indeed belong to the losing party, which may have to only wait four years for a chance to reign supreme for a couple decades." It should be noted that Fleckstein predicted the bursting of the high-tech bubble in the fall of 1999.
So who is right: Rove and Boot or Chapman and Fleckstein? Which party will likely own the future?
In the short term, much of the non-economic Bush agenda (like conservative judges and legal reform) will pass. Economic reality would seem to dictate against further tax cuts, but the guess here is that Republicans will do it anyway. A partial privatization of Social Security will be an uphill fight, but Democrats should never underestimate Bush again. The ball is in the Republicans' court -- until they overreach.
Skeptics of an approaching era of Republican dominance can point out that the president had to come from behind after the Democratic convention, that it was another one-state victory in the Electoral College and that an incumbent with 99 percent name recognition gained only a 3 percentage point victory against the challenger. What's more, the next Bush administration faces major challenges with Iraq and the deficit.
But that amounts to loser's logic. The president made gains in almost every state and with every ethnic group, and he did so with a high voter turnout. In addition, the GOP made gains in the Senate following upon its victories in the 2002 mid-term election. Along with gains made in the House, all these things argue for an extended period of Republican control barring major social dislocations.
The wild card in any administration is unanticipated events. I have no predictions on how the economy or Iraq will work out. But politically, I agree with the assessment of the Democratic Leadership Conference: "We got our clocks cleaned." It's certainly possible that a second Bush term will end in calamity, especially since the GOP is now in charge of everything. But it would be foolish to count on that.
Republican errors may lead to temporary gains. But to build a stable Democratic majority, some new thinking and a new set of candidates are needed. For starters, Democrats must run candidates who are in touch with the church-going "Red State" voters who now hold the balance of power.
Economic appeals are essential, but some cultural affinity with Middle America is a minimum requirement for success. Bush's cousin, John Ellis, listed "culture" at the top of his list of five reasons why Kerry lost. "Sen. Kerry was never going to be credible as a faith-based candidate," Ellis said.
He didn't need to be. What he needed to do was let a vast swath of Americans (particularly in the middle of the country) know that he shared their cultural concerns. Chief among those are the porno-ization of American media, the sexualization of children, and the "pimp and ho" rap culture. Kerry never uttered a critical word about the media sewer. He paid the price in exurbia."
A candidate seen as out of step with Middle American values will be a non-starter. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein surely spoke for many centrist Democrats on the issue of gay marriage that did so much damage to Kerry when she said: "I believe it did energize a very conservative vote. The whole issue has been too much, too fast, too soon."
Republican Hugh Hewitt called this election one last backlash against the Sixties, and he is largely correct.
A look back at the election shows how entrenched the Republican majority has become.
Some Democrats feared that a liberal senator from New England might have trouble competing outside of his home turf. Those fears proved true as Kerry was unable to carry any previously Republican states in the Midwest, South or West. Only three states switched sides from 2000: New Hampshire went Democratic for the New Englander Kerry, while Iowa and New Mexico tilted Republican.
Bush won the popular vote majority that eluded him four years ago by making percentage gains with blacks ( 2), women ( 5), Hispanics ( 6), Asians ( 3), Catholics ( 5), Jews ( 6), residents of large metropolitan areas ( 4) and Democrats ( 4). The voting patterns were very similar to 2000, with Bush doing best with Southerners, Westerners, conservatives, farmers, small business-owners and religious voters.
The president's victory was powered by three main factors: incumbency, regionalism and social/cultural issues.
Incumbency: This campaign was largely about President Bush: 53 percent of voters approved of his job performance, and they voted for him by 90 percent to 9 percent. Incumbents with a job-approval rating above 50 percent almost never lose. In a race with no incumbent, Kerry likely would have won. It's hard to think of any tactic that could have overcome the incumbency advantage.
The regional advantage: For more than a century after the Civil War, Democrats could count on six Southern states. No Democrat has ever been elected president without carrying at least five Southern states because there are too many Republican states in the Farm Belt and Mountain West. Since the 1960s, Jimmy Carter has been the only Democratic nominee to carry the South.
Racial issues drove white Southerners out of the Democratic Party in the 1960s, but cultural issues like abortion and gay rights -- that is, "values" -- are more important in that region now. And Kerry was completely shut out in both the South and the Rocky Mountain states on Nov. 2.
Social/cultural issues: While incumbency probably accounted for the president's popular vote margin, social issues, particularly gay rights, tipped crucial states in the Midwest like Ohio, Missouri and Iowa to the Republicans. Many Bush voters were motivated by conservative social values.
The Ohio story
Numbers from Ohio tell the story of an almost unheard bounce in rural turnout. At least 800,000 more Ohioans turned out for the 2004 election compared to four years ago. Where did all the extra votes come from? Some came from higher turnout rates in labor areas like Cleveland, Toledo and Youngstown. More came from a monstrous GOP vote in rural counties. Virtually no one foresaw the increased rural turnout, which is why exit polls showed a Kerry lead: pollsters oversampled urban areas.
But there is another story here: Rove had Ohio Republicans put a referendum on gay marriage on the ballot, hoping to boost conservative turnout. The ploy worked: gay marriage was rejected by a 62 to 38 percent margin, and conservatives were a significantly larger share of the vote this year. Republicans voted 4-1 against gay marriage. And Ohio was the one state that could have turned the Electoral College result around for Kerry.
Another big event of this election was the Republican success in attracting votes from racial minorities -- the first time that has happened since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Bush's increased support among Hispanics tipped New Mexico, the most heavily Latin state in the nation, to the Republican column. His improvement among Asians cut the Democratic lead in Hawaii, while increased black Republican support helped lock up Ohio and make states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and New Jersey closer than in 2000.
CNN's exit poll gave Bush a record 44 percent among Hispanics, an impressive performance by any measurement. In 1996, Bob Dole won 21 percent of the Hispanic vote. Bush more than doubled that.
Here's the critical question: Is Bush's Hispanic strength unique to him or is this a permanent pro-Republican change in Hispanic voting patterns? If it is the latter, the Democrats will likely be shut out in emerging battleground states like Florida, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico for some time to come.
Jeff Greenfield of CNN once pointed out that the word "campaign" came out of the terminology of war: It literally meant a military effort to achieve a specific objective. To extend the military metaphor, by carrying the Catholic vote (usually the nation's key swing group), the Republicans seized control of the battlefield. By making gains with white voters in large metro areas, particularly women and Jews, Bush and Rove overran the Democrats' perimeter defenses. And by adding crucial votes from blacks, and especially Asians and Hispanics (the latter two groups the fastest growing in the country), they have begun to crumble the Democrats' inner fortress.
The role of turnout
One last factor that can't be ignored is the record number of votes cast on Nov. 2. Earlier, I predicted that if the total turnout exceeded 110 million, Kerry would likely win. By the time all the votes are counted, the actual number may reach 120 million, the highest percentage of voting since 1968. Roughly 15 million more Americans participated than in 2000. The Democratic vote went up by 6 million, but Bush surpassed that with a roughly 10 million-vote surge (second only to Ike's 12 million-vote gain in 1952).
Bush gained about 3 million votes from Democrats and Independents. The rest came from a booming Republican turnout. If the 60 million Americans who voted for Bush this year stay active, the long-awaited realignment may finally be here and Republicans will be in good shape for the rest of the decade -- unless they fumble the ball.
Democrats will need future candidates who can connect with Heartland and Southern voters and at least neutralize the values issue. To become competitive nationally and to get back control of the Senate, the Democrats will simply have to find candidates who can do battle effectively in the South and the West.
Such a candidate would almost surely have to come from a red state. As the former chairman of the South Carolina Democrats told the Los Angeles Times: "No L.A., no Cambridge, no Manhattan. The majority of America isn't from those areas, and they don't hold the values of these folks."
Patrick Reddy serves as a consultant to California's Assembly Democrats.