It looks like the blue states and the red states split in the US presidential poll is almost identical to the results in 2000, and both Houses of Congress are still almost evenly poised – with some small movement to the GOP. Chris Sheil’s post at Backpages and comments there by Patrick Bateman have spurred me to do a quick analysis of winning margins by incumbent presidents who have been re-elected (including those who succeeded to the Presidency through the death of the incumbent).
David Leip’s online Atlas of US Presidential Elections demonstrates that Bush has the smallest margin in both the popular vote and in the Electoral College of any re-elected incumbent in the last 100 years. Only Wilson in 1916 comes close to Bush’s margins of victory.
Reagan, Nixon, Johnson and Roosevelt all won second terms by landslides. Eisenhower in 56 – another Republican incumbent – won with 57% of the popular vote and 457-73 EV. Truman got 49.55% of the popular vote to 45.09% for Dewey and 303-189-39 in the EV (with Thurmond picking up normally Democratic support in Southern states). Coolidge got 54.04% in 24 with a 382-138-13 split in the EV. Robert La Follette’s candidacy as a Progressive similarly drained off normally Republican votes.
This sure ain’t no historic victory for the Bushies – except perhaps for the smallest 2nd term margin for a re-elected incumbent in at least a century.
So what accounts for this victory? The narrow margin in Ohio – a rustbelt state which Kerry had to win and which has seen over 240000 job losses in Bush’s term – in the context of 2.7 million manufacturing jobs lost over the whole of the United States – suggests that cultural rather than economic factors prevented the Democrats from winning the state’s Electoral College vote. Similarly, commentators yesterday on CBS suggested that the African-American vote had broken for Kerry by about 8 points in some areas less than it went for Gore. The suggested reason was that “church folks” had gone with the “values” message epitomised by the “Marriage for a Man and a Woman” measures on the ballot in many states.
In the 1980s, we started to hear about Reagan Democrats – traditionally Democratic blue-collar voters who had turned away from their party allegiance because of perceptions that the national Democrats were culturally alien and committed only to “minority” issues. This case was made by people like Bill Clinton and his acolytes in the Democratic Leadership Council. The roots of this trend, and the Republican strategy seeking to “wedge” blue-collar and yellow-dog Democrats in fact go back much further – to Nixon’s southern strategy and his stances on issues like the Vietnam War and bussing as early as the 1968 election. The ramifications of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the shift of the Solid South from solid blue to solid red are also far-reaching. As LBJ remarked on signing the bill, “I’ve just signed away the south to the Republican Party for my lifetime”. The Republicans sought to stir up the “culture wars” in 1992 – at a convention which seemingly backfired on the Northeastern Republican incumbent George H. W. Bush. The same strategy appears to have triumphed for his son in 2004, although only narrowly.
Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, noted in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine, that the poorest county in the United States, Loup County in Nebraska, “a region of struggling ranchers and dying farm towns” gave George W. Bush a majority of over 75% in 2000. Frank writes:
When I told a friend of mine about that impoverished High Plains county so enamoured of President Bush, she was perplexed. “How can anyone who has ever worked for someone else vote Republican?”, she asked. How could so many people get it wrong? Her question is apt; it is, in many ways, the pre-eminent question of our times. People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about. This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests.
He goes on to say:
If you earn more than $300000 a year, you owe a great deal to this derangement. Raise a glass sometime to those indigent High Plains Republicans as you contemplate your good fortune: It is thanks to their self-denying votes that you are no longer burdened by the estate tax, or troublesome labour unions, or meddlesome banking regulators. Thanks to the allegiance of these sons and daughters of toil you have escaped what your affluent forebears used to call “confiscatory” income tax levels. It is thanks to them that you were able to buy two Rolexes this year instead of one…
In Australia, it was noted that American and British commentators tended to view our election through the lens of foreign policy – as a referendum on the Iraq War in the smallest member of the “Coalition of the Willing”. We have a corresponding tendency. It would seem, though, that George W. Bush’s issues were “God and terror”. Kerry’s issues were the economy and the mismanagement of the Iraq War. Perhaps the mistake Kerry made was not to engage Bush centrally on the former.
As James Carville famously said in 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid”. Yet the Democrats, in recognition of the cultural divide obscuring economic interests, were keen to talk “values”. As Joan Didion writes in ‘Politics in the “New Normal” America’:
“Hope beats anger,” Al From and Bruce Reed had advised in a March memo to John Kerry published in the Democratic Leadership Council’s Blueprint Magazine. “Hope will beat fear every time,” Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana dutifully said during her turn on the Fleet Center platform. (“Hope,” in these approved constructions, tended to be not “hope for” but just “hope,” strategically unattached to possibly entangling specifics about what the objects of the hope might be.) This nonspeak continued, a product of the “discipline” imposed on convention speakers by the DNC and the Kerry campaign: the Democratic candidates, it was said repeatedly on the Fleet Center platform, would bring hope and optimism back to America, build a stronger and more secure America, stand up for the values that Americans cared about. Hope and values, it was said, were what Americans believed in. Americans believed in the values of good-paying jobs, in the values of affordable health care, in protecting our security and our values. When Elizabeth Edwards was campaigning for the Democratic ticket in Tennessee, according to The New York Times, she cautioned supporters who had spoken harshly about the President not to be “too negative,” not to use the word “hypocritical.” “It’s not useful,” Mrs. Edwards said, “because that kind of language for swing voters¢â¬âthey are tired of partisanship.” These voters, she advised, “don’t want to hear how lousy the other guy is. Talk about how your values inform what you are doing.”
Clinton’s victory in 96 perhaps proved that economic prosperity trumped values. Gore’s attempts to distance himself from Clinton in 2000 over values seemed to fail. Will the values card always fall to the right? How can the left engage on this territory in a divided nation? Or is it more sensible to stick to the economy, stupid?
UPDATE: Tony Jones reports on Lateline tonight that a “large percentage” of American voters ranked “moral issues” above economic and foreign policy concerns as their first priority in deciding their vote. 80% of these voters broke for Bush.