Turnout is still key

Record numbers of voters help both sides, but Karl Rove's skillful strategy of mobilizing religious voters and "closet Republicans" proves hard to beat.

By Paul Harris
Published November 8, 2004 9:27PM (UTC)
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For a brief moment George W. Bush thought he might have lost. As Air Force One was touching down in Washington on Election Day afternoon, his political advisor, Karl Rove, was hunched over an onboard phone getting the first exit poll data from the battleground states.

It was not good news. When Rove relayed the tidings that John Kerry could be heading for a win, Bush was steadfast but disappointed. "I am surprised," he confessed to senior advisor Karen Hughes, and then added: "But it is what it is."


That last phrase echoed the words the pope used about Mel Gibson's blockbuster film "The Passion of the Christ." It showed how easily religious mannerisms fall from Bush's lips and how central his faith is to his view of politics. A few hours later, however, the real voting tallies were showing the first signs of Bush's victory. It was clear the religious right was in fact turning out in droves for the man whose faith matched its own. It was what it was. The Republicans had won.

Many in America now believe there has been a revolution in American politics. At a time of war in Iraq and the first net loss of jobs since the Great Depression, it was instead the issue of cultural values that decided the greatest number of votes. For Kerry's campaign, which saw the Iraq war and the economy as the deciding factors, it was a huge slap in the face.

"The turnout of the religious right was key to Bush's victory. The new slogan should be: 'It's the culture, stupid,'" said Mark Rozell, politics professor at George Mason University in Virginia.


There has been a new dawn in America's politics, and it is shining on a political landscape shaped not by war or jobs or healthcare but by the role of faith in government and so-called cultural values related to abortion and gay marriage. It is this landscape, many believe, that will shape the United States in the next four years.

Rove knows that. It was Rove, the political guru who has masterminded Bush's rise to power, who hit upon the winning strategy of 2004. As soon as the knife-edged election of 2000 was over, it was Rove who suggested that 4 million evangelical Christians had stayed at home. All the Republicans had to do to win the next time, he said, was persuade them to get out and vote.

Now last Tuesday's result has cemented Rove's position as a rare political genius. Right up until the results were announced, the conventional wisdom held that a big turnout would help Kerry. The sight of huge queues to vote, and polling stations staying open for extra hours, all fed the idea that Kerry would win. But the results instead proved Rove correct. It was the religious right, not just Bush-bashing Democrats, who flocked to vote.


That was especially true in Ohio, the crucial state on which the whole election hinged. Some polls suggest about a quarter of voters in Ohio described themselves as evangelical Christians. They voted overwhelmingly for Bush. If they had not -- and Kerry lost Ohio only by some 130,000 votes -- it would now be a Democratic White House. Those are "breathtaking numbers for Ohio. The religious fundamentalists turned out in enormous numbers," said Ken Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University in Missouri.

Rove began to believe victory was in sight at 11.35 p.m. on Tuesday. At that time enough results were coming in from Ohio and Florida to indicate the Republicans had won both crucial states. Rove was in his second-floor office in the White House while below him Bush and the senior members of the Bush family hosted an intimate seafood buffet of crab cakes, salmon and shrimp. As the major TV networks began to call Florida for Bush in the next hour, the party began.


Rove's strategy was based on twin pillars. The first one was religion, which often translated into a set of traditional cultural values around gay marriage, abortion and a simple style of faith-based leadership. It was not just evangelical Christians that this appealed to. Bush's support among Roman Catholics jumped to 52 percent from 47 percent, despite the fact that Kerry is himself a Catholic. Bush's support among Jewish voters also jumped, as did his support among Hispanics. The only socially conservative group that largely shrugged off Bush's appeal was black Americans -- the most loyal Democratic voting bloc.

The second pillar was Rove's devastatingly effective organization that blitzed the end of the campaign in a frenzied final 72 hours of hitting the phones, stumping the pavements and getting to the polls. Run on a tightly disciplined pyramid design, Rove commanded an army of 1.2 million volunteers with branches in every one of America's counties. It was also almost entirely staffed by committed volunteers. That was in stark contrast to the Democrats, who used many paid outside organizations to recruit and register voters. Such dedication by the Republicans' core supporters is the envy of Democratic organizers. "They are more robotic than we are, and I mean that as a compliment," said former Clinton White House aide Larry Haas. "They decide what they need to do in order to win, and they don't let anything interfere with that."

That was true inside the Bush campaign itself. It was a tightly run affair, always focused on putting out simple lines and rarely wavering even in the face of a tide of bad news from Iraq and the economy. Steering it all was Rove, but he had able and ruthless deputies. One of them was Steven Schmidt, head of the Republican "war room" geared to attacking Kerry. Schmidt, dubbed "the General" by his staff, was fond of walking the corridors of his headquarters urging people to "Kill, kill, kill." It was Schmidt who was responsible for identifying and rapidly spreading the most lethal attack on Kerry of the campaign -- when Kerry defended his stance on funding the Iraq war by saying: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."


The Bush campaign was helped by Kerry's frequent missteps. A picture is now emerging from inside the Democratic campaign of a petulant candidate who frequently complained that things were going wrong. Kerry was often indecisive, hesitating to make decisions. It also reveals how outsiders, like his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry and other family members, had too much influence. Finally, and in utter contrast to Rove's operation, the Kerry campaign consisted of bickering tribes of staffers, often vying with each other rather than working in unison.

Kerry, who hails from traditionally liberal Massachusetts, also presented an easy target for Republicans. "Who thought it was a good idea to run a Massachusetts liberal who has married two rich women and now owns five mansions?" said David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter who coined the phrase "Axis of Evil."

Certainly the ad attacks against Kerry were brutal. Nothing else should be expected of Rove, who is a master of the darker arts of campaigning. Yet Kerry often gave as good as he got. After winning the Democratic nomination as a more moderate voice than the antiwar Howard Dean, Kerry ended up taking a very Dean line by the campaign's end. Kerry's attacks on Iraq, the Patriot Act and the influence of defense company Halliburton were all straight from Dean's playbook.


Kerry was also backed up by a ground operation that succeeded in turning out record numbers of voters. But it was not enough. The Democrats simply missed the main issues of the day: religion and values. That this was central to the result is apparent in the views of Anthony Falzarano, who runs an antique shop in Ohio's Jefferson County. Falzarano, who lives in an area of the state dominated by closed steel mills and hit by job losses, has not been able to afford healthcare for seven years. Nor has his wife or his children. But that did not dictate his vote. He is an evangelical Christian. "I support Bush," he said. "We are closet Republicans and there are a lot of us around here." The polls proved Falzarano and Rove, and not the Democratic pundits, right.

Every 10 years the U.S. Census Bureau has a bit of harmless fun and calculates the demographic center of America's shifting population. It is an imaginary spot on the map where America would balance perfectly if placed on a pivot. The spot is moving south and west by several miles a year -- straight into the Republican heartland.

With the reelection of President Bush the political map of America has now finally caught up with its population map. The last census in 2000 put America's center in Phelps County, Mo. Last week Phelps County voted for Bush by a margin of 63 percent to 36 percent. Missouri itself is a sea of red around isolated patches of blue in its two big cities of St. Louis and Kansas City. And the trend line of the spot spells even more future gloom for Democrats. By now, four years after the last census, it has probably already left Phelps County. It is moving straight for redder than red Kansas.

The Democrats are now coming to terms with the fact that America -- albeit by a narrow margin -- has become a Republican country. They face a Republican president and Republican control of both houses of Congress. "We have to contend with that reality. We are a minority party," said Will Marshall, head of the Progressive Policy Institute, an influential Democratic think tank.


The party now faces a bitter fight between those who believe the Democrats should return to liberal values and those who feel that they should fight the Republicans on cultural issues. "The Democrats just have to take a long, hard look in the mirror. They are in deep trouble. They face the wilderness years," said Shawn Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California.

Meanwhile, the Republicans will have four years to implement their agenda. That is likely to involve appointing conservative judges to the Supreme Court and a possible ban on abortion in many states. It will also see Bush's tax cuts made permanent and further reforms of the tax code amid a move to privatize Social Security. Bush is also committed to seeking a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

All of this is music to the ears of people like Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, an influential religious-right pressure group. "We have got great momentum now. The test is whether President Bush will deliver for us," he said. Certainly the religious right is going to benefit from the influx of new Republican blood in the Senate. Tim Coburn, newly elected from Oklahoma, has warned of a "gay agenda" in America and advocated the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions. Jim DeMint, from South Carolina, wants to ban gay people from teaching in public schools. Bush called DeMint Nov. 3 to congratulate him on his victory and said he would now press ahead with a fresh Republican agenda in a second term.

"Now is the time to get it done," the president said. If Bush does not, he will risk angering the people to whom he owes his victory. Wildmon certainly intends to ensure that does not happen. "We are going to hold their feet to the fire for the next few years. We see our job as a watchdog," he said.


Bush and his administration are unlikely to be shy in pressing ahead with their advantage. In 2000, fresh from losing the popular ballot by half a million votes and winning with a controversial decision in the Supreme Court, the Bush administration was expected by many to strike a moderate tone. "From the very day we walked in the building," Vice President Cheney once said privately, there was "a notion of sort of a restrained presidency because it was such a close election. That lasted maybe 30 seconds."

Now Bush is resuming office as the first president to be reelected while gaining seats in both houses of Congress since 1936. He is the first Republican to do so since 1924. He has won a higher percentage of the popular vote than any Democrat since 1964. "If that isn't a mandate, then what is?" asked Frum. This time, in an America still bitterly divided, any notion of a restrained second Bush presidency will likely not last even 30 seconds.

Paul Harris

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