Exploiting the Rifts

This week, George W. Bush became the first presidential candidate to win a popular-vote majority since his father did in 1988. The son did it, 16 years later, by scoring breakthroughs with important constituencies and by exploiting, rather than healing, the deep ideological divisions in the electorate.

Bush scored a breakthrough with women, for instance. He lost the women's vote to John Kerry, but only by 5 points (52 percent to 47 percent, according to network exit polls). Four years ago, Bush trailed Democrat Al Gore by 11 points among women. Bush narrowed the gender gap mostly by making gains among married women—the "security moms." He divided women.

Bush's biggest breakthrough came with Hispanics. In 2000, Bush got 35 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide. This year, he got 42 percent—the highest ever for a Republican presidential candidate, besting Ronald Reagan's 37 percent in 1984.

Kerry was the first Roman Catholic to be nominated for president by a major party since Democrat John F. Kennedy was in 1960. Kennedy swept Catholic voters. Kerry didn't. This year, the Catholic vote went narrowly for the Protestant Bush (51 percent to 48 percent).

There was a lot of talk of young voters registering to vote for the first time and storming the polls to vote for Kerry: the "Bruce Springsteen effect." It happened—sort of.

A majority of voters (54 percent) under age 30 went for Kerry. (They were the only age group that the Democrat won.) That was a big gain from 2000, when voters under 30 split between Bush and Gore. But the youth vote made up just 17 percent of the total vote on Tuesday—exactly the same percentage it did in 2000.

Young voters turned out in record numbers. But so did older voters—to vote for Bush. In a deeply divided electorate, every constituency turned out in high numbers.

Four issues dominated this election. And one of them may come as a surprise.

Bush wanted to make the election a referendum on the war on terror. Terrorism was his strongest issue. Voters who cited terrorism as their top concern voted 86 percent for Bush. A majority of voters said the country was safer from terrorism than it was four years ago. By 57 percent to 41 percent, voters said they did not trust Kerry to handle terrorism. By precisely the opposite margin, 57 to 41 percent, voters said they trusted Bush to handle the terrorist threat.

What about the war in Iraq? Evidence suggests that Bush's gains came in spite of Iraq, not because of it. Three-quarters of voters who said Iraq was a top issue voted for Kerry. That suggests that the driving force was anger over Iraq, not support for the war.

In fact, voters overall were divided over whether the United States should have gone to war in Iraq—50 percent said they approve of the war, 46 percent said they disapprove. A majority of voters think things are going badly for the United States in Iraq. And most think the Iraq war has made the United States less, not more, secure.

The economy was another issue that helped Kerry. Only 46 percent of voters think the nation's economy is in good shape. Four years ago, 85 percent said they felt that way. Moreover, one-third of voters reported that someone in their household has lost a job during the past four years. Among Kerry voters, the number was nearly half. Voters who said the economy and jobs was the issue that drove their vote went 80 percent for Kerry.

So what's the surprise? It was the issue that turned out to rank first in the voters' concerns: moral values. The values issue rallied the Republican Party's conservative base. Turnout among white churchgoing Protestants was up, from 15 percent of the voters in 2000 to nearly 20 percent this year. Voters concerned about moral issues delivered the vote for Bush—nearly 80 percent.

If you could ask only one question to find out how a person voted in this election, the question would be, "How often do you go to church?" Voters who said they attend church at least once a week voted 61 percent for Bush. Occasional churchgoers voted 53 percent for Kerry, 46 percent for Bush. The unchurched voted 64 percent for Kerry.

If you could ask a second question, it should be, "Does anyone in your household own a gun?" Forty-one percent of voters said yes, and they voted 61 percent for Bush. Voters from households without guns voted 58 percent for Kerry.

Rallying his conservative base paid off for Bush. But he did it by running on divisive social issues, such as same-sex marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, and a ban on late-term abortion. His strategy will make it harder to heal the painful divisions created by the 2004 campaign. Just wait for Bush's first Supreme Court nomination.

One piece of good news for Democrats: There was speculation that Osama bin Laden's videotape, released a few days before the election, might heighten public fear and help Bush. The evidence from the exit polls indicates just the opposite. One-third of voters described the bin Laden videotape as a "very important" factor in their vote. A majority of them voted for Kerry. The tape may have reminded voters that bin Laden is still at large, taunting Bush, despite the president's promise to capture him, "dead or alive."