Thursday, November 4, 2004

So how does a president with a national job approval rating below 50 percent, an economy that lost more than a million jobs over his four years in office, a war that has cost more than a thousand American lives and counting, and a national mood that is downright sour still secure more than enough votes to win re-election?

The answer? Credibility. The president had it. John Kerry did not.

The components of the Bush victory and Kerry defeat all boil down to a single candidate attribute that the president had in abundance but was AWOL from the Kerry campaign: “says what he means and means what he says.” In every state and national survey we conducted in 2004, no desired presidential attribute ever scored higher, and nowhere was Mr. Bush stronger and Mr. Kerry weaker. In every focus group I moderated, voters would plead for candidates who spoke from the heart and not from some speechwriter’s notes.

And nowhere does the image of straight talk matter more than on national security. John Kerry had had two full years to articulate a concise position on Iraq and a clear alternative strategy that offered a successful and more immediate resolution to the war. He couldn’t do it.

Even during the three presidential debates, the senator gave answers that left uncommitted voters in my focus groups both confused and mystified. His critique of the current administration’s failures clearly did political damage, but the electorate could not define exactly what he would do differently. What Mr. Kerry did not realize was that referencing “a plan” roughly two dozen times over 90 minutes is different than actually having one. In a post-September 11 world, voters simply could not elect a president whose position on the nation’s most salient issue was unknown, even to himself.

Mr. Bush won on Tuesday because September 11 has truly changed America and because he accurately reflected America’s resolve that the war on terror has to be won. Not waged. Won. Voters concluded that while Mr. Kerry could adequately manage a terrorist attack, it was Mr. Bush who was more likely to prevent one.

Two key campaign events enhanced Mr. Bush’s role as America’s defender and Mr. Kerry as weak and/or indecisive. The first was the swift boat ads. In my focus groups, Mr. Kerry’s convention performance was effective enough to change a few minds. But the blizzard of TV ads unleashed by the group of Vietnam vets blanketed the airwaves in swing states and undid whatever benefit the convention provided. True, the swift boat veterans never fully convinced voters that Mr. Kerry “betrayed” his country in wartime, but they did raise nagging and unresolved doubts about Mr. Kerry’s character and judgment at the very moment that voters had begun to make up their minds.

The second key event was the Republican convention itself. Swing voters swung to Mr. Bush because of a powerfully delivered convention speech that was the right balance of domestic agenda and national security, and because he effectively communicated that he was truly a man on an unyielding mission. They heard a president who heard them, understood their concerns, addressed their fears, and made them feel safer and more secure in their homes and in their country.

The president stormed out of New York with a double-digit lead that helped him survive the first debate and sustained him through Election Day. It also helped that he had the best one-two consulting punch of this era in Karl Rove and Karen Hughes by his side.

Some will claim that Mr. Bush won on Tuesday because he waged a campaign of fear. The exact opposite was the case. Americans turned to him precisely because they saw him as the antidote to that fear.

Polling over the past few months and the results on Election Day itself illustrated an essential principle of electoral success: It is no longer enough to say no. Voters need someone who will say yes. Mr. Kerry became a symbol for voters opposed to the president’s policies and procedures, but not much else. Conversely, Mr. Bush became the vehicle for those who wanted an affirmative, proactive, preventative approach to homeland security. Americans will tell you that it was Mr. Bush, not Mr. Kerry, who offered the hope that personal security could be restored. And in this election, hope won.

When it came to the war on terror, Americans knew where their president stood and exactly what he believed. They simply did not share the same level of confidence in Mr. Kerry. The events and aftermath of September 11 may not have changed everything, but they certainly changed the outcome of the 2004 presidential race.

In the end, principle trumped polish.

Frank Luntz is president of Luntz Research Cos. in Alexandria, Virginia.

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