It’s worth remembering that John Kerry came within 2.7 percentage points of beating an incumbent wartime president. Bush won, but his margin of victory was the smallest of any sitting president in more than 100 years. Rather than dwell in grief or anger, Democrats should take the time to understand why Kerry failed to win, because there are important lessons to be learned.
Bush triumphed in a popularity contest: 93 percent of Republicans voted for him, while only 89 percent of Democrats favored Kerry. Exit polls indicated that a vote for Bush was primarily an affirmation; 81 percent of the president’s supporters said they voted for him, rather than against his opponent. In contrast, only 55 percent of Democrats voted for Kerry; 35 percent cast their vote because they were against a continuation of the Bush regime.
This relative lack of enthusiasm for Kerry showed up dramatically when pollsters asked voters for reasons they voted for and against Kerry and Bush. The strongest justification to vote for Kerry was “health care,” which was mentioned by 26 percent of those polled. On the other hand 37 percent said the strongest reason to vote for Bush was “response to 9/11,” followed by “the war against terrorism” (32 percent), “decisive leader” (31 percent) and “his religious faith” (29 percent). When asked for reasons to not support Kerry, 36 percent of those polled responded, “flip-flopping on issues,” whereas 32 percent opined their justification for not supporting Bush was “Iraq and foreign policy.”
There was a pattern: Kerry tended to get positive support for his policies and Bush for his personal qualities. The converse was also true: Kerry was criticized for his personal qualities, flip-flopping, and Bush for his policies. (Interestingly, only 11 percent of those polled saw Bush’s “rigid/stubborn leadership” as a negative.) While voters tended to see Kerry as more intelligent than Bush, and better able to express himself, Bush was viewed as the stronger leader and the most honest and religious.
Thus, in the 2004 presidential campaign, George W. borrowed a page from Ronald Reagan: Voters tended to separate their favorable personal feelings for him from their unfavorable opinions of his policies.
Voters found Bush to be more likable because he conveyed a “common man” persona, whereas Kerry came across as aloof—professorial. If the polls had contained the question, “Who would you rather go to a ballgame with, George Bush or John Kerry?” no doubt a strong majority would have preferred Bush.
Exit polls showed a strong relationship between the level of education and candidate choice; the less education the voter had, the more likely he or she was to choose Bush. What appeared to be the “dumbing down” of the president was actually a strategy to make him more likable.
The Kerry campaign was at a disadvantage because of the relative lack of appeal of their candidate. They further weakened the campaign by making three critical mistakes: First, they failed to make an issue of the Bush administration’s mishandling of pre-9/11 intelligence. There was a case to be made that from the moment they took office, George W. and his advisers were obsessed with Saddam Hussein and, therefore, committed a series of blunders: discounting intelligence that indicated that Al Qaeda was planning a major terrorist attack on the United States, following the wrong strategy in the invasion of Afghanistan that facilitated the escape of the top Al Qaeda leaders and the destabilization of the country, and rushing into an ill-conceived war in Iraq without a plan for the occupation. By attacking George W. on the issue of security, Kerry could have made a mockery of the notion that Bush “kept us safe.”
The second mistake was in not responding swiftly, and effectively, to the Swift-boat ads. These ads, and the accompanying book, Unfit for Command, called Kerry’s honesty and patriotism into question, and tarnished his heroic image.
Finally, the Kerry campaign never settled on a central campaign theme. For example, they touched on the issue of moral values and then backed away. At the Democratic convention, Kerry expressed what could have been a central theme in the campaign, “It is time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families,” which highlighted core progressive values such as fairness, protection, and equal opportunity. Then the campaign dropped the concept of “valuing families” and talked primarily about policies.
In October, when George W. lambasted Kerry as a liberal, the Democratic challenger seemed unable to mount a defense; he did not offer a clear expression of progressive values or attack the Bush administration for investing in the powerful rather than in the people. The Kerry campaign ignored the reality that the label, liberal, does have a negative connotation to many voters who listen to Rush Limbaugh, watch Fox News, or read Ann Coulter. To these Americans being a liberal means being the bearer of a contagious immorality that subverts youth, weakens the family, and undermines the defense of the nation.
For many Democrats, Kerry was a satisfactory rather than optimal candidate. Ultimately, his personality was not strong enough to compensate for the mistakes made by his campaign.