Swimming against a strong tide: the brilliance of the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign

Democratic brilliance of strategy and its execution

In many ways the Democratic campaign was a tour de force. In a country that had been trending red, as we have written, for over a decade, Bob Shrum, Mary Beth Cahill, and their associates developed and executed an almost successful game plan; consider this, from a piece by Michael Barone:

Kerry’s paid-worker, union-led turnout drives in central cities…..his vote was up 21 percent over Gore’s in the battlegrounds.

That would have been the headline — if Rove’s GOTV efforts had not increased the Bush vote by 23% in those same states. It would have been a victory for Kerry in Ohio and Florida, and the liklely replay of 2000, to blue’s advantage. Kerry managed to keep the both his pro and anti war factions together — while this is now reported as confusion and dissension in the ranks of advisers, that was only the fallout among the thinkers. It was the voters who mattered, and Kerry kept tham all in the boat. Likewise, Republicans may complain about Democrat GOTV efforts that brought out, not only the lame and the halt, but the convicted, the foreign and the fictional — but those efforts were highly effective. John Kerry’s popular vote total was 12% above Al Gore’s, an outstanding showing, particularly against a tide that was sweeping 5 new GOP senators into office.

Swimming against a strong tide of a decade of Republican growth

Here’s more of Barone, via Polipundit, because we love numbers:

With the absentee votes in California and Washington finally counted, it appears that overall turnout was up 12 percent. John Kerry’s popular vote was also 12 percent above Al Gore’s. But the popular vote for Bush was up a stunning 20 percent. Before the election, some liberal commentators were claiming that Bush would win no votes he hadn’t won in 2000. Not quite: He won 10 million more.

Bush’s popular vote was up 23 percent in the 13 battleground states that decided the election. Kerry’s paid-worker, union-led turnout drives in central cities nearly matched that–his vote was up 21 percent over Gore’s in the battlegrounds. But that wasn’t enough to outdo the Bush volunteer efforts in the make-or-break states of Florida and Ohio. Elsewhere Bush had a bigger edge. His popular vote was up 21 percent in safe Bush states and 16 percent in safe Kerry states, compared with 12 and 5 percent for Kerry. The Bush organization literally reshaped the electorate. The 2000 exit poll showed an electorate that was 39 percent Democratic and 35 percent Republican. The 2004 exit poll, which was tilted toward Democrats, found a dead heat: 37 percent to 37 percent. That means that Republican turnout was up 19 percent and Democratic turnout up only 7 percent. This is the most Republican electorate America has had since random-sample polling was invented.

The state-by-state picture: advantage GOP

When the campaigns switched on the afterburners, Democrats turned out more, but Republicans turned out a lot more, which is also evidence of who’s growing and who’s shrinking. Or as Polipundit put it in a different post, based on this, the state-by-state numbers make clearer the GOP’s structural advantages:

1. There are 31 red states and just 19 blue states. 62 senators must answer to their red-state constituents.

2. Bush won at least 60 percent of the vote in 14 states. Kerry could only do that in 2 states, plus DC.

3. The red states have gotten much redder. For instance, Bush increased his margin in Alabama from 15 points in 2000 to 26 points in 2004. In Louisiana, from 8 to 15. In Tennessee, from 4 to 15. In West Virginia, from 6 to 13. In Arizona, from 6 to 11.

Conclusion: the almost amazing, merely brilliant, Kerry campaign strategy

Thus, in a country clearly continuing a decade-long trend of becoming more conservative and Republican, John Kerry would have won the presidency if his GOTV effort in Ohio would have been a little bit stronger than that of his opponent. That would have been an amazing accomplishment; as matters turned out, it was merely an outstanding strategy, brilliantly executed.

UPDATE: The bitterness of the Democrat loss in Ohio

Matt Bai in the NYT Magazine explains how the Democrats got blind-sided by the Republican GOTV effort, and so, while they were, for example, beating their internal guideline of a 150,000 vote margin by getting a 217,000 vote margin in Cuyahoga county, they were getting skunked downstate:

Republicans were able to mobilize a stunning turnout in areas where their support was more concentrated than it was in the past. Bush’s operatives did precisely what they told me seven months ago they would do in these communities: they tapped into a volunteer network using local party organizations, union rolls, gun clubs and churches. They backed it up with a blizzard of targeted appeals; according to the preliminary results of a survey done by the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, one representative home in Portage County, just outside Cleveland, received 11 pieces of mail from the Republican National Committee.

This effort wasn’t visible to Democrats because it was taking place on an entirely new terrain, in counties that Democrats had some vague notion of, but which they never expected could generate so many votes. The 10 Ohio counties with the highest turnout percentages, many of them small and growing, all went for Bush, and none of them had a turnout rate of less than 75 percent.

For Democrats, this new phenomenon on Election Day felt like some kind of horror movie, with conservative voters rising up out of the hills and condo communities in numbers the Kerry forces never knew existed.

This kind of thing helps explain the confidence of the Kerry forces and the severe letdown many of them now experience.

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