Four weeks after the presidential election, there continues to be a controversy about the difference between the exit poll projections and the actual results. Almost daily, conspiracy theories surface on Internet blogs, only to be refuted a few hours later.
To gain perspective on why many Democrats persist in the belief that the election was stolen let’s remember what happened on Nov. 2. In addition to exit polls reporting that Kerry was going to win, there were widespread reports of voting irregularities. I heard some of these in Colorado, where I was getting out the vote. Periodically the Boulder Democratic headquarters would receive calls that voters were being harassed or told the wrong place to vote.
A national database (https://voteprotect.org/index.php?display=EIRMapNation) captured 24,842 of these voting irregularities. Mahoning County, Ohio, reported more than 1,000 voting incidents; for example, “Caller’s father voted on touchscreen machine for Kerry-Edwards, when he went to check his vote, the vote had recorded Bush-Cheney; he had to try three times to get the vote to Kerry-Edwards.” Similar incidents were reported in Miami-Dade County in Florida, “Voter voted for Kerry; when she reviewed the [touch screen] ballot it showed that she voted for Bush.”
These documented irregularities don’t fully account for a Bush plurality of 3.3 million votes; but the fact that many of us saw or heard about election nastiness does explain why Democrats have a bad feeling about the election, why we want to believe that the Republican cheated their way to victory. To dispel these concerns and accept the results, Democrats require a coherent explanation for what happened—why Kerry didn’t prevail as we hoped.
I’ve concluded that Bush won for two reasons and that neither involved a conspiracy. The first was that Republicans did a better job of getting out the vote. Matt Bai’s article, “Who Lost Ohio?” In the Nov. 21st New York Times Magazine explained, “The Bush campaign had created an entirely new math in Ohio” with so many white, conservative and religious voters now living in the brand-new townhouses and McMansions in Ohio’s growing ring counties, Republicans were able to mobilize a stunning turnout in areas where their support was more concentrated than it was in the past.”
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Ronald Brownstein and Richard Rainey observed that, compared to 2000, Bush’s biggest vote increases came in 100 of the fastest-growing “exurban” counties—meaning the distant suburbs, the “ring counties” that Bai noted. We can see evidence of this in Northern California. As we scan the voting results, moving eastward from San Francisco to Sacramento County, we see that Republican voters came out in progressively larger numbers than ever before; for example, 83 percent of San Franciscans voted for Kerry, while 53 percent of those in San Joaquin County voted for Bush and there was a virtual tie in Sacramento County. Over the past four years, the number of Republicans in the Bay Area exurbs has increased. For example, conservative Republican Congressman Richard Pombo—whose district encompasses eastern Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties, plus San Joaquin County—received 110,361 votes in the 2000 election and 152,434 in 2004; Pombo’s exurban district contains rapidly growing communities, such as Brentwood, that are heavily Republican.
I saw this same pattern in Colorado: Republicans matched the Democratic get-out-the-vote effort by focusing on the suburbs and exurbs. In Boulder County, where Kerry received 67 percent of the vote, Democrats turned out 90.8 percent of those registered; in exurban Douglas County, where Bush received 67 percent, Republicans turned out an astounding 96 percent of those registered. In critical Jefferson County, a rapidly growing Denver suburb, Democrats hoped to win outright; however, because of the combined Democratic and Republican GOTV effort, there was an 89.6 percent turnout, and Bush got 20,000 more votes than he did in 2000, 52 percent of the total.
Understanding the Republican GOTV strategy explains the exit-poll discrepancy—the polls were off because they didn’t adequately consider the extent of the Republican turnout in the suburbs and exurbs. In other words, the poll weightings were wrong because they were based upon the 2000 race and, therefore, the pollsters didn’t sample enough voters in the ‘burbs.
Democrats got out the vote but so did Republicans; 37 percent of voters self-identified as Democrats and 37 percent said they were Republicans. For all practical purposes the Presidential campaigns ended in a dead heat.
What finally tipped the election to Bush was Party loyalty: 93 percent of Republicans voted for the nominee of their Party while only 89 percent of Democrats supported Kerry. That 4 percent decided the election. Kerry would have won if Democratic voters had supported him as fervently as GOP loyalists supported Bush.
In the final analysis, Bush won the election because Republicans did a superb job getting out the vote and holding their base. Howard Dean, and others, warned the Kerry campaign that they should spend less time appealing to undecided voters and, instead, focus on energizing the Democratic base. That Dean was right is one of the big lessons to be learned from the Kerry defeat.