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Winning the election with God and fear

Gary Caruso | Thursday, November 4, 2004

When asked why the unemployed Ohioan voted for the president, the man said, “He is a person of faith.” When pressed that Sen. John Kerry is a Catholic who regularly attends church and was an alter boy growing up, the unemployed man said, “That was in the past. I don’t know about today.”

Voting to affirm moral values proved to be the wild card in this year’s election that fooled all of the pundits. While some may have thought a record voter turnout would indicate displeasure with the incumbent president, it represented a vote against a seemingly national moral decline embodied in same-sex marriage. It also was the first time voters could express themselves on the war in Iraq, the terrorism of Sept. 11, especially when Osama bin Laden appeared three days before the election, and social fears that this nation was about to lose its moral compass.

This year, two historical precedents had been contradictory. First, Americans had never defeated an incumbent president during wartime, although wartime presidents had been reelected by narrow margins. Secondly, no incumbent president under a 50 percent approval rating had ever won reelection. One of those rules had to break this year. Most, including this writer, thought that Bush’s “war of choice” would be rejected. Rather, voters thought that same-sex marriage went beyond the pale. Their concern was raised to such a higher level that they felt compelled to act.

Exit polls revealed that nationally, more voters (22 percent) considered moral values their greatest concern compared to the economy (20 percent) or terrorism and the war (19 percent). The president won 79 percent of the “moral values” group with three-fourths support from those calling themselves evangelical Christians. Among weekly churchgoers, Bush was preferred to Kerry 60 to 39 percent.

The president only captured one more state than he had carried in 2000, winning two of the three big prizes – Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania – which was the key to victory for both candidates. Pennsylvania easily went for Kerry, and Florida easily fell into Bush’s column, leaving Ohio as the final arbiter of the election.

In Florida, Bush gathered a diverse religious coalition of whites, blacks, Hispanics, evangelical Protestants and Jews. His language of a “culture of life” left room for various groups to define and include their personal preferences, whether abortion or same-sex marriage, under Bush’s rhetorical umbrella. Exit polls showed that Bush won 16 percent of the African-American vote in Ohio and 13 percent in Florida while only carrying 11 percent nationally. In Ohio, 61 percent of African-Americans supported the ban on same-sex marriage that also appeared as a referendum on their ballots.

Ironically, moral outrage erupted when four Massachusetts supreme court justices, three of whom are Republicans, interpreted their state constitution to included equal protections for same-sex marriage. More ironically, while same-sex marriage seemed to be represented by an either/or proposition symbolized with Bush against and Kerry for, a Washington-based gay human rights organization issued intriguing findings of common ground from exit polls. Fully half of the voters who supported civil unions voted for Bush. Also, 61 percent supported some form of legal protection for same-sex couples with 27 percent favoring same-sex marriage and 35 percent favoring civil unions.

What went wrong for John Kerry? He could not adequately connect with voters, most importantly in Ohio. A month ago this column suggested that Kerry could better communicate with voters by using visual images (the cost of Iraq would cover every square inch of Pennsylvania with dollar bills 121 times). It suggested that Kerry call the cost of the war “foreign aid,” because Republicans are adverse to such a rhetorical description. Finally, it suggested that the president speaks out of both sides of his mouth when he says Kerry would spend $2 trillion more on newly proposed programs while the president advocates private accounts in Social Security that require a transition cost of $1 trillion.

The negative assertions brought forth by President Bush ultimately worked against Kerry. After planting doubts about flip-flopping or saying anything to win – the same assertions used in 2000 against Al Gore – Republicans kept preaching to their choir. One Ohio man said, “I’m a Democrat, if you can believe it. You ever get a feeling about somebody? I would listen to him talk and I’d get the feeling he was just saying things he thought people wanted to hear.” The man concluded by saying, “I think my uncle even voted Republican this time, which is weird.”

The rhetorical difference in Bush and Kerry was summarized in stops the two made only 10 miles from each other in Ohio. Kerry, playing in response to Bush’s terrorism credentials, spoke past Ohioans with a national message to terrorists of we will destroy you and “you can run but you cannot hide.”

In a neighboring community, Bush enforced the negative “feeling” about Kerry by connecting with locals by saying, “I’m running against a man who thinks you can find the heart and soul of America in Hollywood. I know where you can find the heart and soul – here in Cambridge.”

While the president proceeds with the impression that he has a mandate for his policies over his rhetoric, Democrats will best be served by recognizing how to return to Bill Clinton’s way of “connecting” with voters. Only the next four years will tell if the feelings of 2004 voters were correct or will become a buyer’s remorse.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.