- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

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As a political junkie who was born and raised in conservative southern Ohio, I was acutely interested in a post-election study by the liberal group America Coming Together of why President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry in the Buckeye State.

The answer, according to their poll, sends a message that is conveniently flattering to grassroots organizing groups like America Coming Together as Democrats prepare to choose a new party chairman and assess where they go from here.

The organization polled 1,400 rural and outer-suburban voters in Ohio counties that Bush won by an average of 17 percentage points, and came up with answers that defy much conventional post-election wisdom.

It was not, for example, an outpouring of churchgoers, driven by the Bush “moral values” and the gay marriage referendum, that won it for Bush, according to Steve Rosenthal, chief executive officer of America Coming Together, writing in the Washington Post. Exit polls show the share of Ohio’s electorate represented by frequent churchgoers actually declined from 45 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2004, he notes. And nationwide Bush improved his vote by four percentage points since 2000 among those who don’t go to church, compared to only 1 percent among regular churchgoers.

So was it the Bush campaign’s superior mobilization of Republican strongholds while suppressing turnout in Democratic areas? Not really, Rosenthal notes. Turnout in Ohio’s Democratic-leaning counties was up 8.7 percent, while turnout in Republican-leaning counties was up slightly less, at 6.3 percent. And Kerry did better than Al Gore in Democratic strongholds like Cuyahoga County, home of Cleveland.

And even in outer suburban areas where unions tend to be weak, said Rosenthal, who was political director of the AFL-CIO from 1996 to 2002, voters indicated they were more likely to be contacted by a union worker for Kerry than by their church, the National Rifle Association or some other group that was pro-Bush.

No, the America Coming Together poll and others indicate, it was not the local ground war to get out the vote, Rosenthal concludes, but the issues of terrorism and the war in Iraq that lost Ohio and the national election for Kerry.

Well, despite the obviously self-serving nature of that conclusion when it comes from a leader in that ground war, I think Rosenthal is onto something. It is not just Iraq or terrorism, but the overall good feelings Bush conveyed, rightly or wrongly, in helping people feel safe that gave him the edge.

In that light, the Bush side’s most expensive and, in my view, most emotionally powerful television ad was a $14.5 million spot by the Progress for America Voter Fund. It features a digital snapshot that ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer of Bush hugging 15-year-old Ashley Faulkner at a campaign stop in Lebanon, Ohio.

He had just heard that she lost her mother in the World Trade Center disaster. Without a word, he stopped and hugged her to his chest. The look on his face is one of genuine grief, empathy and comfort. The ad ends with Ashley Faulkner’s voice saying: “He’s the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure I’m safe, that I’m OK.”

The power of the ad comes from something you seldom see in a presidential campaign, a moment of genuine human feeling without any prompting from handlers or spin doctors. The result in this case was a powerful narrative that made the president a part of the larger story in just the way Bush wanted to be seen.

“They produce a narrative, we produce a litany,” said James Carville, a Kerry consultant, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “They say, ‘I’m going to protect you from the terrorists in Tehran and the homos in Hollywood.’ We say, ‘We’re for clean air, better schools, more health care.’ And so there’s a Republican narrative, a story, and there’s a Democratic litany.”’

And, alas, there was a Republican victory when Kerry failed to tie his list of promises and proposals together into a unifying vision as persuasively as the Bush campaign did.

It all reminds me of how my generation of Ohioans grew up with simple unifying values like, “You don’t change horses in midstream” and you don’t change presidents during a war.

Even during the late days of the Vietnam War, when I, along with many hometown friends, reported to the Cincinnati induction center, despite our personal doubts about how that war was going. At the time, all that we knew clearly was that we were being called to fight to protect our families and country from global communism. So we went.

So it is with many of those who voted for Bush despite their reservations about what in heaven’s name the war in Iraq has to do with Sept. 11. Cutting through the fog of long, complicated histories and details, they voted for a guy they thought they could trust. Simple messages carry a lot of weight.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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