This paper analyses the issues that decisively shaped the election agenda during the United States presidential campaign and election of 2 November 2004. It can be expected that, during his second term, President George W. Bush will find different degrees of popular support to pursue new policy initiatives on various issues.
Broad popular and political support is likely to be found for the presidency of George W. Bush to continue tough policies in the so-called war against terrorism, including new military and diplomatic action linked to the Greater Middle East plan. On the other hand, and contrary to a large number of improvised comments immediately after the election (but not before), popular opinion and voting motivations on the issue of ‘moral values’, which basically refers the regulation of family and sex matters, do not appear to give the presidency or the congressional majority broad support to legislate in a more conservative way. A clear popular majority tends to support the status quo on these issues, even if skilful campaigns in a few states may have been crucial to produce election results favouring the Republican candidates.
George W. Bush’s victory in the US presidential elections has been presented as unique because he won the highest number of popular votes for a presidential candidate ever. But in fact this was the effect of a higher turnout that benefited both leading candidates. More interesting is that, despite the fact that the global difference between the two major candidates was around 3.5%age points, George W. Bush gained an average of almost 60% of votes in 31 states, while the Democratic candidate, John F. Kerry, only attained such a%age in three states. In large states where the Democratic majority was more significant, other important offices are held by the Republican Party, including the governorships of California, Massachusetts and New York. In contrast, other large states such as Florida and Texas have Republicans in office at both the federal and state levels.
A Mandate or a Lame Duck?
What is even more important is that, for first time in around seventy years, a Republican ‘unified government’ exists at the federal level in the United States, that is, the Republican Party controls the White House together with the two chambers of Congress. A political-institutional situation like this existed during most of the period 1896-1932. But after the first presidential victory of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, there were, first, twenty years of Democratic unified government; then, after the first presidential victory of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, there were almost fifty years of ‘divided government’, a situation that became almost ‘natural’ to political observers for a regime of separation of powers. During most of this period (70%), a Republican president faced a Democratic majority at least in the House of Representatives. For a short period it was the opposite: a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, had to deal with a Republican majority in Congress.
All these situations of divided government promoted either broad bipartisan cooperation for legislating on major matters, approving annual budgets and confirming presidential appointments, or paralysis and gridlock which prevented bare majorities to impose their will over tough opposition. Thus it was commonly considered that divided government was a favourable political-institutional framework for political consensus or at least for preventing narrow majorities from becoming absolute winners. However, since 2000 the Republican Party again controls the presidency, confirmed with majority popular support in 2004, together with the majority of seats in both the House and the Senate. In some respects this new political situation at the beginning of the 21st century implies a return to the Republican predominance of the first third of the 20th century.
Immediately after the election of 2 November 2004, certain opinion-makers in the United States tried to interpret Bush’s new victory as a ‘mandate’ to develop or culminate some of the policies initiated or outlined during his first term. This approach rightly points to the importance of the political-institutional framework to evaluate the scope for manoeuvre of an incumbent president. But it implicitly considers that electoral support for the winning candidate comes in a ‘package’ that includes all the numerous policy issues in his potential agenda. It seems more realistic, on the contrary, to acknowledge that election campaigns and most voting decisions are usually based on a small selection of prominent issues in the messages of both candidates and media rather than on a broader agenda. This is partly due to the excessive costs that voters would face to obtain sound information on many issues. But it also derives from the fact that, even if voters are well informed, they have to choose a single candidate with all the policy positions he promotes, even if they disagree with some of them.
Alternative opinions after the November 2004 election have hypothesised that presidents are politically weaker during their second term because they cannot be re-elected again and appear as ‘lame ducks’, which makes them prone to be victims of scandals aired from the ranks of the opposition. Examples of second-term scandals include Richard Nixon with the Watergate burglary in 1972, Ronald Reagan with the Iran-Contra conspiracy after 1984 and Bill Clinton with the Lewinski affair in 1998. But this approach, although it might reflect some specific disposition of the legislators depending on the incumbent president’s election opportunities and expectations, does not take into account the basic political-institutional framework emphasised above. In all the three scandals mentioned, the president’s party was in a minority in Congress and, thus, vulnerable to the opposition’s initiatives. This is not the case with the presidency of George W. Bush, who is unlikely to be assailed from his own Republican ranks.
Explaining the Presidential Election Victory
Three main factors can explain the results of the United States presidential elections: the electoral system, the incumbent’s advantage and the issues aired in the campaign. First, the choice of US president depends on the system of indirect election through the Electoral College. Since in almost all states the electors are chosen by a simple majority, the presence and importance of third or additional candidates can make a difference. A strong third candidate was crucial, for example, in defeating the incumbent president George H. Bush in his bid for re-election in 1992; the challenger Bill Clinton won the presidency with a minority of popular votes, as he did again in 1996, as a consequence of the fact that many (although not only) conservative voters supported the independent candidate Ross Perot. Also, in 2000 the candidacy of Ralph Nader might have been decisive in attracting some progressive or leftist voters, to the indirect benefit of George W. Bush in a few states. In the 2004 election, third and other candidates obtained very low proportions of votes and were not decisive in tipping the balance between the two major candidates in any state.
From a mechanical point of view, in the 2004 election the Electoral College procedure worked reasonably well, since the same candidate was simultaneously the winner in popular votes, in number of states won and in College electors. But the Electoral College system is vital in determining the candidates’ strategies, especially by encouraging them to concentrate their campaigns on only a few states in which no winner can clearly be determined beforehand and to select the issues that are more relevant to electors in those states (as we discuss below).
Secondly, the incumbent has an advantage over the challenger: results tend to be more favourable to the incumbent’s party when a sitting president seeks re-election. This was, for instance, the case with Roosevelt (1932-45), Eisenhower (1952-60), Nixon (1968-73), Reagan (1980-88) and Clinton (1992-2000), all of them re-elected for (at least) a second term. It was precisely this advantage, patently proved by Roosevelt’s four consecutive victories, which moved the Republicans to introduce a two-term constitutional limit for presidents. The incumbent’s advantage rests on his better opportunities and means to issue favourable information and positive evaluations of the government’s record. But he can also benefit from the voters deciding to opt for less satisfactory but well-known office-holders rather than risking their vote on promising but not sufficiently reliable candidates. This was probably the case in the 2004 election, in which around two-thirds of challenger John F. Kerry’s voters declared that they were anti-Bush rather than favourable to the Democratic candidate.
The third factor to be analysed in this paper is the prominence acquired by different issues during the election campaign and the information available to voters. Some issues, such as the state of the economy and the government’s record, generally run in favour of the incumbent, if he is one of the contenders, when the general perception of these issues is positive. Other issues are ‘owned’ or at least ‘borrowed’ by different parties on the basis of their past record in government and the corresponding credibility allocated to them. In the US, defence, crime and taxes, for instance, usually run in favour of the Republican Party, while healthcare, social security and education (decreasingly) favour the Democratic candidates. On these and other issues, a broad consensus has emerged as a result of successful policies of one of the parties and to which the other tends to adapt. Moral values and family issues, by contrast, are more divisive and have been the subject of the so-called ‘cultural wars’, as we will discuss below.
In general, the American electorate is relatively centrist and consensual. In 2004, 45% of voters have declared themselves to be ‘moderate’, in contrast with 34% that consider themselves ‘conservative’ and 21% ‘liberal’. Precisely because there is a broad consensus, the differences of opinion on a few issues tend to be exaggerated by political parties and candidates in order to make differences more noticeable. In the face of two distinct options, voters have to make dramatic choices which might appear to be polarised. But polarisation has been largely induced ‘from above’ and is much greater between political parties than among the citizenry. It is precisely the broad consensus on many policies that gives such a high profile to the candidates’ personal characters when voters have to decide: since the candidates are not all that different from each other on many issues, their personal credibility to fulfil their promises counts to a far greater extent.
The following analysis is based on data provided by a major exit poll used by the media during the post-election period. Here we examine not only aggregate numbers but state-by-state results (Edison/Mitofsky for the main TV stations, 11/II/04). To the question ‘Which one issue mattered most in deciding how you voted for president?’ a relative majority of voters mentioned ‘terrorism’ or the ‘Iraq war’ (34% if taken together). Bear in mind that this is the first presidential election after 9-11, and that from that day the Bush government has been able to claim that no other terrorist attack has since taken place in the US –in stark contrast to a number of lethal terrorist episodes in other countries–. In 2004 75% of Americans declare that they are worried about terrorism (even without mentioning Iraq), but a clear majority considers the US safer than four years earlier (54% to 41%) and trust president Bush to deal with terrorism (58% to 40%). A majority also consider the Iraq war to be part of the war on terrorism (55% to 42%) and approve the decision to go war in Iraq (51% to 45%), despite things there not going as well as expected for the US.
Given these conditions, the presidential election looked more like a choice of a wartime commander-in-chief of the armed forces. For such a post, a majority of voters have a favourable opinion of George Bush (53% to 46%), especially on account of his qualities of strong leadership, honesty and trustworthiness, and his clear stand on the issue (very few people, by contrast, mention his intelligence or his religious faith). Conversely, a majority had an unfavourable opinion of John Kerry (51% to 47%), especially on account of their perception that he says what people want to hear rather than what he actually believes (56% to 40%).
The second most important issue in determining the voters’ decisions was the situation of the economy and jobs, which, if put together with the issue of taxes, was mentioned by 23% of voters in the exit poll. Kerry repeatedly blamed Bush for being one of the few presidents in the 20th century to have recorded net job losses in his term in office. However, Bush was able to respond with relative ease by blaming the bursting of the stock market bubble caused by the dotcom shares, which occurred during the Clinton presidency, as well as the negative effects and destruction of the 9-11 attacks. During the last two years of his first term, in fact, economic growth was at 3.3% and 3.7% (compared with the European Union’s 1.5% and Spain’s 2.7%, although this was, of course, not mentioned in the US campaign) and around two million jobs were created, thus placing unemployment at 5.4% (again, much lower than the European average). As regards taxes, an overwhelming majority of those concerned with the issue favour their reduction rather than their increase, a trend that has consolidated among the American electorate during the last twenty years to the credit of the Republicans.
In other words, the relative economic performance during the Bush presidency’s first four years was not brilliant: the incipient recovery has still been relatively slow and has not generated employment to the same level as in the past. However, the absolute values of certain basic economic variables were not all that poor. Despite Kerry’s efforts, and in contrast to Clinton’s famous warning to Bush père twelve years before, this time ‘the economy, stupid’ was not the most important issue in the election. In fact, a slight majority of voters did not trust that Bush fils would be able to handle the economy (51% to 49%), although Kerry was even more distrusted (53% to 45%).
The greatest surprise in the Election Day exit poll was the large proportion of voters, around 22%, who mentioned ‘moral values’ as the most important issue in their choice of candidate. ‘Moral values’ were not even mentioned as a potentially relevant issue in virtually any of the numerous pre-election polls, which had focused on terrorism, Iraq, economy/jobs, taxes, healthcare, education and ‘others’.
At the state level there is a negative relation between the importance given to terrorism/Iraq and to moral values. Extreme cases are Arkansas, where the proportions of voters motivated by terrorism/Iraq vs moral values were, respectively, 25% to 34%, and New York, with a proportion of 46% to 12%. However, as these numbers show, the dispersion of the moral-values issue across the states is greater than that of terrorism/Iraq. On a state-by-state basis, the largest proportion of citizens voting first of all for terrorism/Iraq is twice as big as the lowest, while the largest proportion voting for moral values is three times bigger than the lowest. This indicates that the moral-values issue was particularly important in a small number of states, especially in the Midwest and the South, and was a less homogeneously distributed concern than terrorism and the Iraq war in most other states.
Rather than the presidential campaign itself, the prominence of the moral-values issue was helped by a number of state referendums on heterosexual marriage. On average, moral values were the most important issue for around 4% more voters in the states holding these referendums than in the others. In all states, the answer ‘yes’ meant support for a definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, but not the ruling out of common law homosexual couples. Neither was homosexuality condemned. Rather, a broad sector of voters wanted to preserve the institution of marriage by limiting the right of having or adopting offspring exclusively to heterosexual couples. Homosexual weddings, although accepted by a few mayors, had only been made legal by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, Kerry’s own state. With these referendums, the eleven states tried to prevent other mayors’ initiatives from being legalised by judicial sentences, but they imply no additional legislation and maintain the status quo. The referendums, which were mostly promoted by religious groups with discreet help from the Republicans, were capable of mobilising numbers of Evangelical and Catholic voters who, in the absence of such an incentive, had apparently tended to abstain in the 2000 election. Their electoral participation helped increase the total number of popular votes for George W. Bush at a national level. At the state level, however, they were probably not decisive in almost any case, although a major exception might have been Ohio, the only hotly-contested state between the two major presidential candidates in which a referendum of this kind took place. Since Bush’s advantage over Kerry in Ohio was of only 2.5 percentage points, it might have been the case that the additional mobilisation of religiously-inclined voters roused by the referendum tipped the balance in favour of the Republican candidate and, with it, the Electoral College majority.
The success of the moral-values issue in mobilising additional Republican voters in some states does not mean that there is a nation-wide popular majority in favour of new policy decisions on homosexual marriages or, even less, abortion. In the 11 referendums, ‘yes’ beat ‘no’ by an average of 70% to 30%, which is 12 points higher than the average proportion of Bush votes in those states. This means that a significant number of Kerry voters also voted ‘yes’. The exit polls show that, at a national level, while a substantial minority (37%) would opt for declaring same-sex couples illegal, there is a large majority in favour of maintaining their legal status (60%, including those in favour of accepting common law homosexual unions –35%– and those in favour of legalising same-sex marriages –25%–). In fact, a proposal for a constitutional amendment to outlaw homosexual marriages had already been introduced in Congress, but was defeated in June 2004. In his statements regarding his future plans after the election, President Bush made no mention of any such initiatives.
Likewise, on the abortion issue there are two extreme minorities of voters respectively favouring its full legalisation in all cases (21%) and its outright banning (16%). Adding those in favour of making it fully legal and those wishing it to be legal in most cases, ie, the sum of those likely to oppose new more restrictive legislation on the issue, we obtain an overall majority of 55% (compared with 42% who would opt for additional restrictions). In the aftermath of the election some have suggested that President Bush should appoint new members to the Supreme Court to promote a review of the 1973 ruling (known as Roe v. Wade) whereby abortion was legalised at the federal level. Such a decision would give the states new opportunities to legislate more restrictively on the issue, although it would not prevent most states from maintaining their current legislation. However, such a decision would likely be fiercely opposed by the Democrats, who can rely on majority popular support. It is highly likely that, anticipating this, the Senate will block any new presidential appointment for the Supreme Court oriented towards that kind of initiative. The logical implication is that it would be very risky for George W. Bush to make such an attempt; indeed it is very likely that he will not even try.
The mandate given to the re-elected President George W. Bush is fairly clear regarding the issue of terrorism and related matters. Immediately after the election, Bush declared that he had been given new political ‘capital’ and that he was ready to ‘invest’ it. It is likely that, supported by a majority popular opinion and by corresponding electorally-motivated positions of legislators, the new Bush Administration will pursue its tough policies against terrorism, which include the project of democratising, or at the very least liberalising and pacifying, a number of countries in the Middle East. Over the next few years this project will not necessarily imply any new warlike initiatives, especially on account of financial constraints, but it will likely encompass both interference in States whose dictatorial regimes might support terrorist activities and new diplomatic initiatives, especially regarding countries like Iran and North Korea, which the Bush Administration may invite other countries to join. In particular, the conflict between Israel and Palestine might reach a crucial point during Bush’s new term in office. For many member States of the European Union, this prognosis might lead to new efforts to involve themselves in international missions and world peace-making responsibilities. Much of the potential success will depend, nevertheless, on further developments in Afghanistan and Iraq, which could become exemplary lessons and a warning to other dictatorial regimes.
Contrary to other post-election forecasts, it does not seem likely that the new Bush administration will embark on new legislative or judicial initiatives regarding homosexual marriage, abortion or other family and sex-related issues. A number of state-level referendums on heterosexual marriage might have played a crucial role in raising the turnout in favour of George W. Bush and, perhaps, in tipping the balance in a few decisive states. This was a discreet and skilful initiative on the Republican side. But further initiatives to modify the legislative status quo on these issues would very likely be highly divisive, conflictive and unpopular, as well as fiercely resisted by a large number of members of Congress.
Josep M. Colomer
Research Professor in Political Science at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), Barcelona