Don't Blame the Voters

The verdict on "values": It's a political advantage to have some

Newsweek reports that John Kerry met his fate last Tuesday with a howl of incomprehension: "I can't believe I'm losing to this idiot." In the days after the election, the same clatter of fury and condescension rang through blog chat boards and pro-Dem websites, and it was directed ultimately not at "this idiot" but by implication at the tens of millions of idiots who voted for him. As the Mirror of London put it, echoing popular European sentiment, "How Can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?"

The tabloid cover bearing that headline has become a smash-hit download in the U.S. as well as the U.K. One Floridian member of an e-mail list I receive added this remark by science fiction writer Bruce Sterling to her mail signature: "We live under the Confederacy. We're a podunk bunch of swaggering pious hicks." So great was the indignation that the empty plaints of a few celebrities who groused about leaving the country in 2000 became a popular badge of outrage last week. It took little imagination to see that the would-be émigrés were not fleeing their government so much as their countrymen, the troglodyte fundamentalist horde that imposed this result on them. Bush Republicans seemed pleased at this: "Americans Flock to Canada's Immigration Web Site," the Drudge Report gloated. And why shouldn't they be pleased? They recognize the growing polarization of the country and they mean to exploit it. No appreciable number of people is really leaving, but if they are made to forswear any attention to or involvement in the whole sordid mess going forward, something similar is accomplished.

For the opponents of Bushism to vent this way, to think this way, is profoundly dangerous. Also wrong, not just as a matter of principle but as a matter of fact. But it is also consistent with a long line of Democratic apologia whose specialty is blaming the victims of the party's own abdications and failures. To put it another way, it isn't possible to discuss what the voters said last week absent some reckoning with what they were never given the chance to say.

But first a little about what the numbers do say. Turnout, in the end, met extravagant predictions: By the time absentee ballots are processed, nearly 120 million votes will have been tallied, reflecting the largest percentage of voter participation since 1960. The Evangelicals have been boasting all week that they carried the election for Bush. They certainly helped--in retrospect, it seems clear that Karl Rove's most consequential move was to ensure that gay marriage became a ballot referendum in so many states, and especially Ohio--but to say they won it is a very large stretch. Oddly enough, the percentage of self-identified Protestants supporting Bush declined by 4 points from 2000 to 2004. According to exit polls, 17.9 percent of voters were white Evangelicals who voted for Bush. But that number is almost exactly offset by the percentage of voters who said they came to the polls to cast a vote against Bush (17.5). So it's hard to make the case that religious conservatives all by themselves gave the race to Bush. The fabled "middle" had something to do with it too.

The website compiled this list of how the president and the Republicans fared with 19 different segments of the population. Bush, you will note, improved his standing in 16 of 19 common demographic categories. I've tagged the ones where Kerry and the Democrats gained share with a bullet for easy reference:


Bush vote % in 2000 / Bush % in 2004
African Americans:8/11
Not married:38/40
Union members:37/40
  • Gays:
Gun owners:61/67
  • Protestants:
  • 18-29 year olds:
30-44 year olds:49/53
45-59 year olds:49/51

"Bush's gay base is eroding," said CP's Paul Demko in a sepulchral croak when he got a look at these numbers. And so it is, along with the Republicans' share of the aforementioned Protestants and of 18- to 29-year-olds (though barely, and by less than the margin of Bush's improved share among 30- to 44-year-olds). Otherwise most key demographic markers trended slightly more Republican than in 2000. Of course, there are countless ways to parse a pool of numbers this large, and one of the most felicitous for Democrats is to note that first-time voters broke for Kerry 53-46. The trouble is, this merely restates a premise to which everyone assented going in: The election had shaped up to be a referendum on Bush and would be settled in part by the magnitude of the anti-Bush turnout among people who don't usually vote.

Over four in ten Kerry voters said their ballot was cast not so much for its recipient as against Bush. What to make of this number? From a tactical standpoint, was the Anybody But Bush vote too great or too paltry a portion of Kerry's total for him to succeed? Applied in retrospect this is a trick question, but perhaps a useful one. Certainly we can say that with respect to the campaign Kerry chose to conduct, it was too low. From springtime until "Kerry the closer" finally reared his head in the October debates, scarcely anything memorable--much less rousing--emanated from the Kerry camp. That was basically the plan: Stand back and let Bush be Bush, then move in to claim the spoils. As for building a sustained case against Bush, well--why? He was far too coarse and obvious to make that necessary, wasn't he? Everyone could see what was going on--the Times and the Post were full of dire stories from Iraq! There is class hauteur in this, but there is also a generation's worth of evidence that something else is in play. The loudest clue is a matter of silence and omission--of all the things Democrats running for president refuse to say even when there is a fairly clear electoral advantage to be had by it. And that gets to this week's most fondled statistic, the values question.

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