A losing cultural and religious battle, combined with too little talk of the economy and too much late-campaign focus on Iraq, is probably what doomed Sen. John Kerry's bid on Election Day. That was the thrust of the post-mortem this morning conducted by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who worked for the Kerry/Edwards campaign. He spoke at the National Press Club. There were several intriguing highlights:
In a startling turnaround among the electorate, the more educated voters were in 2004, the more often they voted Democratic, while the less educated (white) voters went strongly for Bush. Republicans are now the party of the working class.
Greenberg says cultural issues, including faith, fueled the switch and that blue collar and older voters were ready to vote Democratic but in the end didn't feel comfortable enough with Kerry; they didn't see the "authenticity" they were looking for in a new leader.
Specifically among the elderly, the pollster noted the 2004 campaign was not focused on Social Security like it was in 2000. ("Remember the 'lock box'?" asked Greenberg.) Consequently, seniors, like many, essentially fell back on cultural issues, as well as national security, in making their final decision.
Similarly, there was a late rush to Bush among rural white voters; non-evangelicals with a traditional populist leaning.
Working class voters were willing to consider a Democratic option, but when they didn't hear a compelling enough economic narrative from Kerry they let cultural issues drive their vote. "'Democrats need to have a bold economic narrative. Not just policies," said Greenberg.
He noted two reasons for why the economic message may have been missing late in the Kerry campaign. The first is that throughout his career in Congress, foreign policy has traditionally been Kerry's strong suit and it was that expertise that showed through during the first debate and vaulted him back into contention. But Greenberg notes in the short window between the third debate and the election, Kerry was not able, or was unwilling, to make the economy the centerpiece of his campaign. Instead, Iraq loomed the largest, particularly the final week's story about missing explosives from an Iraqi weapons depot. Yes, it kept Bush on the defensive, said Greenberg, "but it also had the greater effect of John Kerry not getting heard on economic issues."
"Democrats need to think about how faith and values build a greater affinity with voters," said Greenberg. "If Democrats are wise they'll go back to bible school," he said, somewhat in jest, pointing to the party's "grand tradition" of national figures who felt comfortable talking about God and even quoting scripture -- people like Martin Luther King, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
The leadership of the Catholic church hurt Kerry by refusing to give him communion for being on the wrong side of the church's abortion teachings. That controversy, and the fact some in the hierarchy did not approve of Kerry, meant he "wasn't viewed as similarly religious" among rural voters, which "made the cultural questions more difficult for Kerry."
Bottom line: It was an election "about values and safety" instead of "Iraq and the economy." That, said Greenberg, meant Americas were asked to vote on "a world view versus performance."
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."