- The Washington Times - Monday, September 5, 2005

DIVIDED STATES OF AMERICA: THE SLASH AND BURN POLITICS OF THE 2004 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

Edited by Larry J. Sabato

Pearson, Longman, $14.95, 300 pages, paper

Larry Sabato, University of Virginia professor of politics and oft-seen election commentator on television, has assembled 13 front-line observers of the 2004 presidential election to analyze aspects of the event.

Brooke Bower, a member of ABC’s 2004 political unit, leads off with a straightforward account of the primary season, the conventions and the general election campaign. He reminds us that while Howard Dean was becoming the “inevitable” Democratic candidate John Kerry was mortgaging his house and upending his staff to keep his campaign alive. As for the conventions, perhaps the longest-lasting effect will be the near-total abandonment of coverage by the broadcast networks, further ceding the news function to cable channels.

Reporting for a Vermont newspaper, Claude Marx covered the Dean campaign from start to finish. He points out that Al Gore’s endorsement of Mr. Dean in December 2003, intended to be the clincher to Mr. Dean’s “inevitability,” was actually “the start of his demise.” While most of the media were entranced by Mr. Dean’s online fund-raising, Mr. Marx astutely notes: “Many of Dean’s orange-hat wearing volunteers had long hair and body piercings. This image clashed sharply with the state’s reputation as a haven for the values depicted in Norman Rockwell’s paintings.”

In his own chapter, “The Election that Broke the Rules,” Mr. Sabato writes, “A bad economy and an unpopular war are poisonous for Presidents and good omens for challengers.” Yet, President Bush won by nearly 3 million votes in an election that had a record number of voters. The conventional wisdom that large turnouts favor Democrats proved untrue. The nearly 17 million increase in the number of voters helped the incumbent more than the challenger.

Mr. Sabato discusses the flawed Election Day exit polls and the resulting incorrect pronouncements that Mr. Kerry was leading. He says the problem lay in the composition of the exit polling samples. “There were far too many Democrat-leaning women, and solidly Democratic African-Americans were allocated a sky-high 21 percent of the sample even though their percentage of the electorate was no more than 15 to 16 percent.” Whether he thinks the sample was skewed deliberately or inadvertently, he does not say.

While Mr. Bush won re-election by a thin percentage margin, 2.4 percent, he did have coattails, adding to his party’s majorities three seats in the House and four in the Senate. The Sabato essays cover voting patterns by geography (broadly speaking, Kerry territory was urban, Bush territory, suburban and rural); age, religion and party identification.

The author has three interesting recommendations for the Democrats if they want to win the White House in 2008, but giving them away here would be like revealing the climactic moment in a suspenseful movie. Accompanying Mr. Sabato’s essay are three “political” maps of the United States, all difficult to follow because they lack legends. Other maps are easy to follow as are 22 pages of geographic and demographic vote tables.

Vaughn Ververs, editor of Hotline, weighs in with a chapter titled “A New Media.” The title and several references in his essay show that, while he has some important conclusions to share, he does not understand that the word “media” is plural, not singular. He points out that one-time “mainstream” media such as the New York Times, The Washington Post and broadcast networks, were caught off guard by the Swift Boat Veterans’ TV spots that called into question Mr. Kerry’s Vietnam War record. This, he says, led to their decline in influence with the body politic. The problem was compounded by the willingness of CBS to let Dan Rather and “60 Minutes” air a segment questioning Mr. Bush’s National Guard service. The story was an old one and Mr. Rather relied on bogus documents. Within hours of the broadcast, several Weblogs had demonstrated that the documents were inauthentic.

Respectedpolitical newsletter editor Charles E. Cook in the concluding chapter says, “the first reason that President Bush won was that Bush-Cheney ‘04 was the best organized and executed presidential campaign in American history. They were focused, disciplined and relentless, thinking several moves ahead like a master chess player…”

That’s saying a lot, but then Charlie Cook has a seen a lot of presidential campaigns come and go. For those looking for clues to future campaign planning and those who enjoy replaying previous elections, “Divided States of America” will be informative, filled with insights and good reading.

Peter Hannaford is the author of “Recollections of Reagan.”

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