Second Thots

Sometimes one has to step back, take pause, and have some "second thots"

Wednesday, November 10, 2004


Finally, my take on Bush vs Kerry 2004

Now that the dust has settled from last week's historic election - I have settled down too - this might be a good time to provide my own analysis of what happened on that eventful day.

This was a close election. If I really wanted to I could sell my own prediction of at least a 5% margin and 300 electoral votes for Bush as coming pretty close. But it really wasn't.

My thinking was there were hidden votes for Bush that the polls and the press weren't picking up on. I thought Americans would easily decide to stay with Bush as a noticeable sign of confidence in a wartime president who was being treated unfairly from many quarters. Although some of this did occur, the vote was hardly the ringing endorsement for Bush that I had predicted.

If there is one thing recent events have taught me it's to stop thinking I know better than the polls. We often see people on all sides questioning the accuracy of the polls because they don't adhere to their view of the world and the country. I fall into this category. People tell the pollsters their opinions and go to the election booths to vote based on their own perceptions of the candidates and the issues - nobody else's.

And if there is one thing these election results tell me, as well as the exit polls, it's that many Americans were very unhappy about the war in Iraq. Most of the people who voted on that issue voted for Kerry. This completely contradicts everything I led myself to believe about general perception of the war. I knew there was uneasiness. I didn't know there was outright defiance. Many large segments of the American voting population were willing to turf Bush and get someone else to run the war. This fact should be of grave concern for Bush. Luckily, voters gave him another chance to vindicate himself there. Victory and democracy would do just that.

Karl Rove likes to cut it awfully close. This is the second time now that he has engineered a very close red state/blue state election victory for his candidate. This can't be by accident. It became evident months before election night that Rove decided upon a certain strategy for victory: shore up that part of the country which thinks like you do, which is about 51%. Forget about the rest. If the Democrats didn't get good turnout in 2000 Bush probably would have gotten 51% in that election. Rove rectified that deficiency this time around. He got good turnout in 2004. That's for certain. He won an important election with extremely high turnout on all fronts. You really can't do it any better than that.

I'm still coming to terms with that strategy, because it meant abandoning many of the other alternatives available to the Bush team. Two of these included going after Kerry, as well as trying to change perceptions people have of the world around them.

John Kerry tried to be President of the United States WITHOUT running on his record. Rove and Bush let him.

George Bush tried to remain President of the United States by allowing the media and the other side define Iraq and the economy. He still won.

The surrender to the media is understandable. Politicians rarely win that war. The easing up on Kerry's record I'm having a harder time with. Perhaps they didn't think it would be necessary, given their strength with their own voters. But a three percentage point margin is awfully small to be toying around with. That made it possible for a man running away from his record to almost become president.

Which brings up another possibility. Rove and the team didn't want to take the risk of having Bush engage in the kind of communications strategy he has difficulty with anyway. Bush does well with a basic message and sticks to it. What you rarely see him do is to try and surgically remove vital organs of opposing politicians. When he tries, as he did at certain times in the debates, he comes across as confusing and inarticulate. So, going after the 51% of the electorate you think you already have falls in line with Bush's campaigning skills, as opposed to a more directed attack which someone like Bill Clinton made a living on. Different strokes. Furthermore, trying to change minds in the late stages of a campaign is like trying to eat salad after already having cake. It's hard to go down.

John Kerry was a one trick pony. Perhaps never in the history of elections has a candidate used the skill of political debating to his singular advantage. There is almost nothing else that he brought to the table that was exceptional. This is why I don't think it will be surprising if John Kerry's appeal as a national figure ended the moment he gave his concession speech. That's what happens when your greatest asset is who you aren't as opposed to who you are. John Kerry wasn't George Bush. It's the only reason he got as far as he did.

Before the debates, the campaign was going the way I thought it would on election night. Bush was pulling ahead by a considerable margin. The debates, however, did two things for Kerry. They allowed him to look as presidential as Bush while standing side-by-side. They also allowed him to articulate arguments against Iraq and the economy which Bush was not prepared to rebut in any substantive fashion. The debates gave voice to the concerns many voters had about these two important issues. They also allowed Kerry to make it a close race right until the end.

Other than that, John Kerry was not a good presidential candidate. He allowed the Swift Boat Vets to muddy his image. He didn't have a vision of his own. It makes one wonder if the Democrats couldn't have done better with someone else. Hillary Clinton? Al Gore? As ludicrous as it may sound, both could offer something positive in a way John Kerry never could. Clinton offers personal popularity. Gore offers a 'what could have been' alternative which Kerry couldn't because of his initial support of the war. Either way, George Bush's failure to put away Kerry suggests someone even mildly better could have done the job for the Democrats. It's hypothetical. But so is a John Kerry presidency.

Post-election analysis should not be made hastily. There are various theories being circulated among the talking heads: the evangelicals won it for Bush; the evangelicals didn't win it for Bush; the GOP now owns the electoral map; the GOP doesn't now own the electoral map.

What should give comfort to the Republicans is the comprehensiveness of the victory: significant margin in the popular and electoral votes; high turnout; pick-ups in both houses of Congress. All of this suggests some kind of mandate. Not only did Bush win, not only did his party win, but there were no victories to speak of for Kerry and the Democrats. Even on the ballot question everyone is talking about - gay marriage - the social conservatives won the day.

What should give comfort to the Democrats is that this was still a close race. I just wonder if it's enough. They threw everything but the kitchen sink at Bush and he now finds himself in a position to vindicate his first term agenda. The economy is still turning around. Iraq is still on the march to democracy. If those two developments unfold in the president's favour the Democrats might have to kiss 2008 goodbye too. Bush was able to wrestle the presidency away from an incumbent representative in Al Gore. Don't know if Hillary can return the favour. It's even more doubtful that the party can. Perhaps their only chance is disaster for Iraq and the economy. For a party desperate for a positive vision, that might not be enough for the long term. Probably the last thing they can afford is to risk losing again by doing the same thing over and over again. At least some retooling might be in order.

The Zogby legend is over. Not only is the legend of John Zogby over, it's been blown to bits by a car bomb with the license plate which reads, "BUSH - 286." That's the number of electoral votes Bush managed to win on election night. Zogby's prediction had him closer to 200, and Kerry over 300. Was he ever wrong.

Let's take a very small trip down memory lane to recall how Zogby got his reputation as the master of election polling. He accurately predicted a stronger than expected Bob Dole performance in the 1996 presidential race. He was almost on the money. He also accurately predicted a late Al Gore surge in the 2000 presidential race which would win him the popular vote. He was almost on the money then too.

Now let's take a look at what he did this time around.

His election afternoon poll had Bush up by one point nationally. Bush was also ahead or tied in crucial battleground states such as Ohio and Florida. Yet, amazingly, he gave these states to Kerry in his prediction. Why? because Kerry was trending well across the board. Really? Zogby must have gotten carried away with the exit polling too, because if there was any trending going on it was clearly happening in Bush's direction.

Perhaps the only thing I can now say about Zogby is that he let his reputation as a pollster go down the drain because he allowed his personal opinions of Bush get in the way of his professional analysis of the election race. How else can you explain an election afternoon prediction which mirrored exit polling clearly biased in Kerry's favour? Will we ever see the day when Zogby is again held as the best in the business? It was an important election - perhaps more important for some than they let on. Either that, or he was lucky before. Take your pick.

CBS's war with Bush continued until the very end. Speaking of people who believed this election more important than personal performance, CBS did its utter best to hold out hope for a Kerry victory which would have completed their campaign to oust President Bush from the White House.

These are strong words. These are also well justified words.

Yes, Dan Rather did try to hit Bush with documents any teenager could have known were fakes. He and his network followed this up by portraying the race as competitive right until John Kerry gave his concession speech the day after the election.

To begin with, they took the Kerry campaign's claims at face value that there were about 250,000 provisional ballots in Ohio yet to be counted. Both Fox and NBC called the state for Bush without any interference from the Kerry campaign. Just in case anyone has any doubt about the role of that interference on CBS, they kept repeating the 250,000 figure well into the night as though it were fact (by this time, I was listening to their coverage on CBS radio). It's unclear why they felt justified in doing this. The facts turned out to be much different. The number of provisional ballots actually out there weren't enough to make any difference. This likelihood didn't seem to make any difference to CBS.

Not only did they withhold calling Ohio for Bush, which is their perfect right to do so, they mentioned the calling of the state by the other two networks as infrequently as possible. They also carried on as though the result was still very much in doubt and that the final outcome might not be known for days or even weeks. They were doing their best to depict a repeat of Florida 2000.

Any common sense description of what was actually happening on election night would have told a different story. It would have told a story of how many people had already called the election for Bush. It would have told a story of how the chances for a Kerry win in Ohio based on provisional ballots was as likely as the chances of a victory based on hanging chads. It would have told a story of how the Bush team already made the reasonable analysis, which many others were making, that Bush already won Ohio as well as other states, which put him over the top. It would have told the story of how the Kerry campaign was desperate to hold on to any hope that their candidate could still be president.

As it turned out, CBS only started to smell the coffee after common sense was banging on their door for hours. If you have any doubt, just take a look at the difference between what the Kerry camp said about the provisional ballots and what actually happened. It wasn't even close. They were hanging on to any hope of drawing it out as long as they could. So was CBS. So it goes.

And so goes my analysis of Election 2004. It was a wild ride. I'm still recovering from it. So are many others. It might take a while.

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