7 a.m. on election morning found me trudging through the frozen streets of Boulder, Colo. to the county Democratic headquarters. Twelve hours later, having dispatched hundreds of volunteers to Boulder and the surrounding counties, I helped shut down the office and then gleefully proceeded to the “victory” party. I thought we had won; the information we received during the day suggested that Kerry would carry Colorado and win overall.
Alas, I was mistaken. Kerry did win in Boulder, and most of the counties that our office covered, but he lost crucial Jefferson county, and the state. My experience paralleled that of Democratic volunteers in other swing states: we worked hard, registered many new voters, cajoled the undecided, mobilized a massive turnout, and we still lost.
What can be learned from this experience? Two lessons immediately jump out. One is that the underlying theme of this election was not the war in Iraq or the economy, but rather values. Exit polls asked voters what the decisive issue was in determining their vote. The most frequently cited issue was “moral values.” Of those who felt this way, 80 percent voted for Bush. The importance of values also explains what seems on the surface to be a contradictory poll result: voters who believed that “terrorism” was the most important issue voted overwhelmingly for Bush—86 percent, his strongest issue—but those who believed that “Iraq” was the most important issue preferred Kerry. My experience interviewing republicans indicated that they saw the war against Terrorism as a moral conflict, and therefore viewed Bush as more capable of leading this fight because “He’s a Christian.” Republicans separated the war in Iraq from the war on terrorism. Their attitude seems to be that we are losing the battle in Iraq but we will win the war, the crusade against terrorism, because George Bush is a strong Christian leader.
The Kerry campaign was never successful in seizing the values “turf.” Part of this failure can be attributed to the scurrilous “Swift boat” campaign, which convinced many voters that Kerry was a person of poor moral character. This perception was reinforced by the Republican theme that Kerry was a “flip-flopper.” Taken together, these assaults had an enormous impact. The exit polls showed that Bush dominated Kerry on character issues such as “honest/trustworthy,’ “clear stand on issue,” and “strong leader.”
The religious right fully mobilized and grew in power in this election. Of those who attend church at least weekly, 61 percent voted for Bush (Protestants were at 70 percent.) Christian conservatives relentlessly pushed their issues: prohibition of abortion and gay marriage. For this audience, these issues were paramount. I had born-again friends who disapproved of Bush’s conduct of the war in Iraq and his handling of the economy, but still voted for him because he was against abortion and gay marriage.
Kerry lost in Colorado but Democratic Senatorial candidate Ken Salazar won. Salazar ran a socially conservative campaign: he was for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and against federal funding for abortions. Salazar beat Republican Pete Coors because, in the eyes of many religious conservatives, Salazar was seen as having the better moral character.
The second lesson to be learned from this bitter defeat is that Democrats were out-organized. Democrats raised a lot of money, and put up a valiant get-out-the-vote effort here in Colorado and other swing states, but the Republicans raised more money and did equally well getting out the vote. While 89 percent of Democrats voted for Kerry, 93 percent of Republicans voted for Bush. That four percent difference decided the election. (Rather than garner a substantial majority of independent voters, Kerry attracted 49 percent versus Bush’s 48 percent.)
I got deeply enough involved in the Colorado Democratic get-out-the vote effort that I saw evidence of systemic problems. For example, there was an indigenous Kerry campaign here, before the Democratic National Committee (DNC) got involved. Once the DNC determined that Colorado was going to be a swing state, they sent in political operatives and money. In most counties the DNC involvement was heavy handed; they seized control of the Kerry campaign and treated the locals like peons. (Fortunately, this was not true in Boulder, where the DNC folks and the Boulder Dems worked effectively together.)
When I was waging technology battles in Silicon Valley I learned the lesson that while it is important to work hard, it is even more important to work smart. Democrats in Boulder County worked hard and they worked smart. I don’t believe this was true in the rest of the state.
On Nov. 3 I participated in a post-mortem with my new Boulder friends. We were sad, but hopeful. The group agreed that we could build upon our Boulder accomplishments and pledged to fight on. Interestingly, we all believed that the long-term future of the Democratic Party rests with Barack Obama. When he runs for president, in 2012 or 2016, Democrats have to have our act together. If we start work now, we will be able to ensure this.
Bob Burnett is working on a book about the Christian Right.›