The SanityPrompt

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Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Post-Mortem: First Cut

I am reminded tonight of another election night 15 yrs ago. I was working in Virginia where Doug Wilder (D) was running to become the first black governor of a southern state since Reconstruction. He led most of the way but particularly down the final stretch. On Election Day we were told that the exit polls had him winning 55%-45%. When the votes were tallied he won by less than 800 votes and was only certified the winner after a lengthy, contentious and litigious recount. I can remember still that sinking feeling of panic and dread as the campaign staffers rushed back from the victory party at the hotel to the campaign offices to begin preparing for the recount process. How could we have gotten everything so wrong? How could we have had such a divergence between polls and the final results?

It's almost midnight now and NBC has called Ohio for Bush. Florida went that way among all the networks a couple of hours ago. And once again I have that feeling -- a mixture of despair and confusion tinged with panic. How did this happen? The final polls looked great. The chatter was that the Bush team looked panicked. The exit polls looked great -- predicting a 3% Kerry win and victories in Florida, Ohio and the rest of the battlegrounds. Right now though, Bush leads nationally by more than 3% and it seems to be growing. How did this happen? How could all the signs early in the day have been so wrong? How could all the experts on both sides (apparently) been so fooled? I think it has a lot to do with something very similar to what happened in Virginia in 1989.

After the Virginia election we concluded that there were a large number of people who felt uncomfortable saying they were not voting for Wilder, so they told reporters and others that they were. I am not sure if they voted against him simply because he was black or if they felt embarrassed to be voting against him because he was black. Nevertheless, I am sure that race was a cultural issue that led to a divergence between what the true numbers were and what people were willing to report. Why is this significant today? Because I think that the key to this election lay in the 12 ballot initiatives on gay marriage that were up this election across the country. In the end, what turned this election was not the economy or the war on terror but moral issues. My hunch is that many people voted on the ballot initiatives and for President with their eye on the morals divide between the candidates and within the country but were reluctant to report this to pollsters and others. Perhaps this speaks to the divide between what people perceive as the attitudes of the media elites and their own attitudes; a slight embarrassment regarding what they see as a divergence between their values and the values of the national elites. A divergence they defend but are unwilling to stand publicly on. But I simply cannot buy that the pollsters did such a terrible job of sampling. Most people will do their post-mortems in coming days and point to the war on terror and the war in Iraq and say people just did not want to abandon a Commander in Chief in time of war. But I think the exit polls show that moral issues appeared from nowhere to be the most salient issue that determined how people voted today. And Bush won those folks hands down. In other words, if Bush's lead holds up (which looks highly likely at this point) the morals issue will prove to be the deciding factor. So the gay marriage card (and associated moral issues like abortion) may prove to be the deciding factor in this election. What's the significance of this conclusion? Well everyone said the ground game was going to be key in this election. Democrats have historically dominated the Get-Out-the-Vote component of elections but Republicans have closed the gap mightily in the last four years. And the ground game probably determined the electoral vote outcome if not the popular vote. But it was the Republican ground game that put them over the top, not the much vaunted Democratic one. In some sense this is eerily similar to the unfounded prognostications in the primaries that Dean's grassroots effort was so vital and would prove to be the difference. A good deal of hype without a lot of substance.

You can see this in a number of areas in the exit polls. Hispanic voters did not turn out for Kerry in the numbers that polls indicated that they would. The vaunted youth vote failed to materialize, accounting for the same fraction of the votes in 2004 as in 2000. Turnout was up across the board, but not noticeably more so among those voters 19-29. The African American vote won Kerry Pennsylvania but may not have been sufficient in Ohio and nationally. But more importantly, the Republican base appears to have been more energized and turned out more enthusiastically than even Republican operatives expected.

This reminds me that back before the primary season, Karl Rove or someone like him remarked that this election was not going to be about the swing voters and the independents but about energizing the party base and getting large turnout. Noting that the country was so closely divided anyway, persuading the swing voters was likely to be a marginally useful endeavor. Better pay off was likely to be found turning out voters who didn't turn out usually. One well-remarked on observation was that millions of evangelicals stayed home and did not vote in 2000. Clearly, a key component of the Republican strategy was turning these folks out. And it appears that they managed to do this. So perhaps Bush's polarizing governing style has proved useful to him politically in the final analysis.

More importantly, Democrats may find that on closer analysis, that they will rue the day they decided last winter to select a candidate they felt had the best chance of beating Bush rather than the candidate who could most generate enthusiasm. Plenty of my friends and family were energized by John Kerry and impressed by his moral and physical courage (qualities the press has ignored or covered up). His statesmanlike bearing and his poise were striking. Many in the press (see this compilation of backhanded endorsements at Slate) complained about Kerry and bemoaned his lack of such qualities but I think they were being unfair. A deeper flaw may prove to have been his lack of passion and his rather tepid proposals on Democratic policy objectives such as health care, economics, and similar issues. His failure to energize traditionally Democratic voters to vote FOR him rather than to simply vote against Bush may have been his final undoing.

So the combination of the silent salience of moral concerns particularly around gay marriage combined with the lack of compelling factors to generate Democratic enthusiasm for the candidate are in my preliminary analysis the key to understanding this result and understanding this result in the context of the results that so convincingly contradict the indicators leading into Election night. Here I sit alone before the TV in a quiet cold house wondering how things might have turned out differently. For my analysis of outcomes under different scenarios, stay tuned.


It is with pain and admiration that I read your remarkably clear and astute judgments on the election. I am afraid I agree with you. The so-called cultural issues were always the undebated underground issues. That people were ashamed to say so in exit polls suggests something- I'm not sure what. I'm also certain that many felt that a vote against Bush was a vote to admit defeat in another war, like Vietnam, before it could be muffled and disguised in some way.

By Blogger H.M. Kaplan, at 8:57 AM  

Just a couple notes. Anti-gay marriage amendments won by a larger percentage in every state than Bush's proportion of the vote in those states. Oregon even handidly went Kerry though it passed it's amendment 60/40.

I heard it said that the 'moral' issue stats are being derived from the same failed exit polls. We'll probably never know the real reason because there isn't a real 'single' reason.

By Blogger Evil Sandmich, at 11:15 AM  

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