Karl Rove is the toast of the town. President Bush called his political adviser "the architect" of his re-election victory. Democrat Jack Valenti described Rove as "a political genius." Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000, called Rove "the master of the game."
What did Rove do, exactly? Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., put it this way: "President Bush and Rove—let's face facts squarely—were very concerned with 4 million votes they left behind in 2000. They didn't leave them behind this time."
Specter was talking about evangelical Christians. For four years, Rove has lamented the fact that evangelicals didn't show up in expected numbers in 2000, possibly because of the late-breaking story of Bush's drunk-driving arrest. As president, Bush reached out to Christian conservatives by taking strong, clear positions in opposition to abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage. Rove reached out to them with an army of volunteers. "We have 1.4 million this time," Rove said, compared with "the low several hundreds" four years ago.
Democrats see a stealth army of evangelical voters, organized below the media's radar, that pulled a surprise attack on Election Day and overwhelmed them at the polls. Didn't network exit polls show "moral values" as the No. 1 issue of concern to voters this year?
Yes, but the 22 percent who cited moral values didn't exactly dominate the electorate. They stood out because the voters were otherwise so divided on the issues. The 47 percent who cited the economy, Iraq, health care, or education strongly favored John Kerry. Bush's issues—terrorism, moral values, and taxes—were cited by a total of 46 percent.
Evangelicals did vote in large numbers, and they went nearly 4-to-1 for Bush. Rove's strategy of rallying the party's conservative base worked. But that's not the whole story of this election. Most voters on November 2—55 percent, about the same as in 2000—thought that abortion should remain legal in all or most cases. Sixty percent favored legal recognition of same-sex relationships.
The voters this year were not any more religious than in the past. Four years ago, 42 percent of voters said they went to religious services once a week or more. This year? Forty-one percent.
Were religious voters more for Bush? In 2000, Bush carried 59 percent of the vote among churchgoers. This year? Sixty-one percent, a mere 2-point gain. Compare non-churchgoers. Their support for Bush went from 41 to 44 percent, a 3-point gain.
Issues like abortion, gay rights, and stem-cell research are some of the most divisive issues among the electorate. So it's easy to read Rove's strategy as "divide and conquer." But that's not what happened.
Rove's GOP critics were fearful that a sharp-edged campaign to rally the conservative base would end up alienating moderate voters. But as Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman told The Washington Post, the campaign advisers were confident that they could simultaneously "reach out to and expand the base and expand support among ticket-splitting swing voters." That's what happened.
Rove's achievement was not to energize the party's conservative base. It was to do so without alienating moderates. From 2000 to 2004, Bush's support held steady among moderates and independents. He made impressive gains among married women, Hispanics, and Catholics—despite the fact that his challenger was Catholic. Bush had something going for him besides religion and hard-edged conservative values. When asked what mattered most to them in deciding how to vote, Bush voters put strong leadership and clear stands on the issues at the top of the list. Strong religious faith came fourth.
That was Rove's doing, too.
For eight months, the Bush campaign kept up a relentless attack on Kerry as a flip-flopper. It started on March 3, when Bush said, "Senator Kerry has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue." It ended at midnight the night before the election. At his final campaign rally in Dallas, Bush recounted Kerry's vote against funding for the troops in Iraq. "And then he entered the flip-flop hall of fame," Bush said. "And as he entered that hall of fame, he said, 'I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.' "
The voters got the message. On Election Day, most voters described Kerry not as a man who says what he believes, but as a man who says what he thinks people want to hear (56 to 40 percent).
In an attempt to win this election, Kerry worked to sell himself as a uniter. "I will be a president who unites our country," he said at rally after rally. Kerry knew that voters wanted a candidate who could deliver what Bush promised in 2000—"America is looking for a uniter, not a divider."
But it is difficult for people to see you as a uniter if they see you as wavering and inconsistent. That was the image Rove worked hard to create in full view of the media's radar.
Think of candidates who are known uniters: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who won re-election last week with a huge majority; and GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who received a 69 percent approval rating from the same California voters who went solidly for Kerry. Nobody has ever called McCain or Schwarzenegger a flip-flopper.
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