- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Two huge trendlines emerged from Tuesday’s election: continuing decline of the Democrats in wide swaths of electoral territory across the South and West and growing Republican majorities in Congress.

The focus on the eventual mathematical settlement of Ohio’s electoral votes in President Bush’s favor seemed to obscure the larger picture of what happened Tuesday night: First, Mr. Bush won a 51 percent of the popular vote, the first time a president’s done that since 1988. Second, he did it as his party significantly expanded its representation in the House and Senate, which doesn’t happen very often in national re-election politics.

That didn’t happen with some heavy presidential hitters who won elections and reelections by huge margins — such as Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan — but Mr. Bush and his party did do it. The president and the GOP won a bunch of long-held Democratic seats in the Senate in the South and, for good measure, knocked off Tom Daschle, the intensely partisan Democratic leader of the Senate who was Mr. Bush’s chief adversary.

What happened to the Democrats Tuesday night will now become the basis for another agonizing reappraisal of what’s wrong with their party. Look at the electoral map and the vast regions of the country Mr. Bush and the GOP carried, including its expanding gubernatorial ranks, and you have to question whether the Democrats are still a true national party.

In the end, it all came down to which side could turn out more of its voters. This has always been a deciding factor in most elections, but it is pivotal in elections where the polls show the race dead even, as this one was.

The science and technology, if it can be called that, of voter turnout has improved dramatically in recent years; computerized systems have helped find, identify and record the political leanings of voters, block-by-block, precinct-by-precinct, in key battlegrounds.

But two critically important turnout tools have not changed: shoe leather and phone banks — the door-to-door canvassing of voters, the follow-up calls or visits to see that they voted and, if not, getting every one of them to the polls.

The Bush campaign clearly defeated the Democrats in this ground war, but there were big strategic differences between their operations: Mr. Bush’s ground game was made up of volunteers who knew the neighborhoods and, in many cases, knew their neighbors.

Mr. Kerry’s ground organization did this, too, but much of its get-out-the-vote army were staffed by mercenaries, paid workers, brought in (sometimes from out of state) to offset the GOP’s grass-roots advantage, especially in Republican-dominated suburbs. A lot of Mr. Kerry’s ground forces belonged to third-party groups who worked in his behalf but were not a real part of his core organization: labor unions, whose political clout has shrunk, and other independently funded liberal activist groups like Americans Coming Together (ACT), who worked outside of the Kerry campaign but in collusion with it.

There was much discussion in this election about how the undecided voters would split up between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry, and many pundits believed they would fall lopsidedly for the Massachusetts liberal.

But a Michigan National Election Survey of undecided voters showed that in previous elections, these fence-sitters end up evenly dividing their vote for the most part. That’s what happened Tuesday, as it did in 1996, 1992 and 1984.

Another key factor that did not seem to get enough media attention had to do with which candidate had the advantage on the issues. It turned out Mr. Bush, going into Election Day, either led Mr. Kerry on the two big issues or was relatively even with him on others.

When the Gallup Poll asked voters on the weekend before the election what issues would most influence their vote for president, 31 percent said the war on terrorism, 28 percent said Iraq, 27 percent said the economy.

It came as no surprise Mr. Bush received his strongest support on “who is better able to handle the war on terrorism” — 54 percent to 43 percent.

But the response on who could better handle Iraq was surprising, after the insurgency the president faced there that was the focus of fierce attacks from Mr. Kerry and his allies: 51 percent said Mr. Bush could do a better job vs. 47 percent for Kerry, Gallup reported.

Even more surprising was the answer to the question “do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq or not?” Mr. Kerry, after all, called this “the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”

But Gallup found 52 percent said “no,” it was not a mistake; 44 percent said it was.

In other words, Americans were divided over Iraq. But after all that has happened in this bloody struggle to turn a terrorist-breeding country into a peaceful, democratic nation allied with the U.S., a clear majority still believes we did the right thing.

But exit polls Tuesday showed fear of terrorism was uppermost in the minds of the voters and a majority believed Mr. Bush would keep us safe. It was Mr. Kerry’s weakest issue, one his party will have to do a lot of soul-searching to repair.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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