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Understanding the 2004 Presidential Election:
Beyond the Polarized Electorate, And The Republicans' Superior Voter Turnout


Friday, Nov. 05, 2004

A large number of Americans are very unhappy - indeed, many are extremely depressed - about the 2004 presidential election returns. Countless supporters of Senator John Kerry are literally scratching their heads, unable to fathom how seemingly rational people voted for President George W. Bush to serve a second term. Given our poor economy, and the disastrous Iraq war -- with its bogus justification and its thousands of American casualties - Kerry supporters find it hard to imagine, let alone understand, the case for casting a Bush vote.

Political pundits explain the election as the result of a deep division within America. They note that we are a culturally polarized nation, with the red states and the blue states providing a map of the divide. Pundits also explain the election as a result of voter turnout: Conservatives, they say, proved themselves superior at getting their voters to the polls on November 2nd.

These explanations are doubtless correct, to some extent. But they are also dreadfully incomplete. Books will be written deconstructing and biopsying this 2004 contest. Hopefully they will reach farther than these surface explanations to understand what occurred.

Pollster John Zogby appropriately dubbed this an "Armageddon Election" given the "closely-divided electorate with high partisan intensity on each side." But the word "Armageddon" suggests another explanation as well: I suspect religious overtones and undercurrents played a major role in the election.

Kerry Voters' Question: What In The World Were Bush Voters Thinking?

A few days before the election, I got some insight into the thinking of Bush voters, when I listened to a call-in by a liberal community college instructor, to a conservative radio show.

The caller explained that she was a periodic listener who thought the host was honest, though she seldom agreed with his beliefs. She recounted a conversation with two of her colleagues. She said they were intelligent, politically active Bush supporters.

The caller had told her friends that no weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq, and that this had recently been confirmed in the report of President Bush's envoy Charles Duelfer. But her colleagues insisted there had indeed been WMD, and cited the same Duelfer report.

The caller had also told her friends that there was no connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq - and pointed out that Vice President Cheney had admitted as much in the Vice Presidential debate, and that the 9/11 Commission's report had so found. But her friends insisted there had indeed been such a relationship; that Cheney had misspoken, and she was wrong about the 9/11 Commission's report.

Where did her two colleagues get their factually erroneous information? The caller explained that they attended the same evangelical church, and got their information from a sermon their minister had given on the subject.

The talk show host conceded that the caller was correct on all of the points she'd raised. And then he made a comment to this effect: "This isn't the first time I have had callers raise this nonsense being spread from the pulpit. Now I am a Christian, but I am not an ignorant Christian. What in the world are they thinking spreading this erroneous junk information?"

Looking For Answers

What I had heard intrigued me. Were conservative religious leaders pushing junk information on their parishioners? I began listening to a wide cross-section of radio stations, to see what was being said.

Several Christian radio shows included frequent, unabashed proselytizing for Bush votes. Ministers, and their guests, regularly said that a vote for George Bush was the vote that God wanted cast. One minister advised listeners that "God's watchman" would be observing us all "in the polling booths," and reporting what we did directly to God.

Of course, this is anecdotal evidence. It was (and is) too soon for any reliable studies to have surfaced. But the religious influence in this election certainly accounts for at least part of the reason why Kerry supporters cannot understand Bush supporters. Conservative religiously leaders have been boasting of the massive turnout they instituted for the election.

Again, though, this is but part of the story. In truth, not only is there a culture divided between Bush and Kerry supports, but they seem to inhabit separate realities - and different views on religion's role in voting are only one dissimilarity between their two disparate worlds.

The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters

The term "separate realities" isn't mine - it comes from an important and incisive October 21, 2004 report by the Program on International Policy Attitudes and the Center for Intentional and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, entitled "The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters."

Importantly, this study wasn't funded by partisan political groups. To the contrary, it was underwritten by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Ford Foundation.

The report's findings are stark: Bush and Kerry supporters agree that the U.S. should not have gone to war if there were no weapons of mass destruction or if there was no support of Al Qaeda by Saddam. But - like the colleagues of the caller mentioned earlier - other Bush supporters have closed their eyes to the reality that, in fact, there were no WMD, and there was no Al Qaeda connection.

According to the report, Bush supporters have similarly rejected the reality that world opinion was against Bush - believing, contrary to facts, that it actually favored Bush. No neutral observer could possible dispute that, as a factual matter, world opinion strongly opposed, and continues to oppose, the United States's actions in Iraq - and would have preferred Kerry to Bush as President.

Indeed, Bush's own argument has been that he is unwilling to hold an international referendum on his policies - not that he would prevail were such a referendum held. The only supportive countries he has cited in the debates, among the "Coalition of the Willing" are the U.K. and Poland.

Why Are Bush Supporters Resistant to Well-Established, Non-partisan Facts

The report shows that Bush supporters seem to simply ignore information they don't like - even if it is confirmed by the Bush Administration itself! They continue to believe in arguments even Bush and Cheney themselves have dropped - the WMD, and the Saddam/Al Qaeda connection, respectively. And this may be because they get their information from unreliable sources.

Steven Kull, the report's author, provides a rather benign explanation for why this is: "The roots of the Bush supporters' resistance to information," Steven opines, "very likely lie in the traumatic experience of 9/11 and equally in the near pitch-perfect leadership that President Bush showed in its immediate wake."

This bond between Bush and his supporters, Kull notes, interacts with some "idealized image of the President" that they hold. And the two, together, make "it difficult for his supporters to imagine that he could have made incorrect judgments before the war, that world public opinion could be critical of his policies, or that the President could hold foreign policy positions that are at odds with [those of] his supporters."

To study this report is to realize that Bush won reelection through blind faith and loyalty. Bush did not acquit himself well in the debates: Kerry won adherents each time he spoke. But it seems it did not matter: Bush supporters either weren't watching, or weren't really listening, when the debates occurred. This becomes more glaring because the University of Maryland study shows the Kerry supporters were living in the real world.

A "Broad Nationwide Victory" And a New Bipartisanship -- Not Exactly

When introducing the President's victory appearance, Vice President Cheney said, "We've worked hard . . . and the result is now clear: a record voter turnout and a broad, nationwide victory." (Emphasis added.) Forty-eight percent of the nation's voters -- all those (literally and figuratively) blue voters -- will take exception to Cheney's arrogant analysis.

Cheney's claim is all too reminiscent of 2000 when with no mandate whatsoever, the Bush Administration started by employing radical policies as if it had one - quickly burning bridges rather than building them. The first four years of this administration were devoted to winning a second through partisan hardball, and insiders tell me that the second term will seek to consolidate and expand Republican control through as much of the same as necessary.

In his victory speech, after thanking supporters, Bush said, "I want to speak to every person who voted for my opponent. To make this nation stronger and better I will need your support, and I will work to earn it. I will do all I can do to deserve your trust." Yet the next day, in his first post-election press conference, he described working with his opponents as their agreeing with his goals and aims.

With four years of evidence, Kerry supporters - realists that they are, who have learned to watch what Bush and Cheney do, rather than what they say - will hardly be persuaded that this administration seeks a new era of bipartisanship. That is particularly true given that the President suggested at his recent press conference that the divisiveness will end when everyone agrees with his positions. Little wonder there is widespread depression.

The sensible take on the next four years will not be found in the President's faux offers of thorny olive branches with very short stems. Bush and Cheney are not going to trim their sails, and with the ship of state listing dangerously starboard, no one should expect smooth sailing for the next four years. Humility does not come easily to these men of hubris. Rancor should be expected. Indeed, it may be necessary to keep them from sinking us all.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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