November 4, 2004
Turnout Effort and Kerry, Too, Were G.O.P.'s Keys to Victory
This article was reported by Elisabeth Bumiller, David M. Halbfinger and David E. Rosenbaum and written by Ms. Bumiller.
WASHINGTON, Nov. 3 - In the closing hours of President Bush's campaign for re-election, Karl Rove, his chief political adviser, was obsessed with turning out Republican votes. Late on Monday night, Mr. Rove stood in the cold at a rally in Albuquerque and pulled scraps of paper from his pocket covered with numbers that reassured him that his ground army was in full assault.
"In Nevada, where last time there were 598,000 votes cast, our organization made 130,000 contacts," Mr. Rove said, rattling off the statistics. "That's 100,000 targeted phone calls and knocks on the door of 30,000 targeted households. These are less active Bush-oriented voters, people who have not had a pattern of voting, Democrats, Republicans and independents."
He had similar numbers for Florida, Pennsylvania and every other contested state, all part of his four-year effort to prod the Republicans into matching the high Democratic turnout in presidential elections. "What we're trying to do is get our efforts up to parity," he said.
On Tuesday night, Mr. Rove succeeded, as Mr. Bush was re-elected with a margin of 3.5 million votes, in the first presidential election in modern history with an equal turnout of Democrats and Republicans. Mr. Rove's relentless focus on turning out more Republican voters, many of them evangelical Christians, was the critical factor in Mr. Bush's victory, Republicans said.
Other factors, Republicans said, were Mr. Bush's gamble to run on terrorism and his repeated use of a clear, concise message. And Bush campaign officials said they were helped by the man they called a dream opponent, Senator John Kerry, whose nuanced statements about Iraq gave them an opening, day after day, to attack him as a "flip-flopper."
Their high point, Bush campaign officials said, came in the spring, when Mr. Kerry uttered the now-famous line that he had voted for $87 billion for American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan before he voted against it.
"It was the most iconic moment of the campaign," said Mark McKinnon, the president's chief media strategist. "As soon as we saw it, we knew that was exactly what we wanted to say, but he said it for us. That's something he couldn't undo."
But in Boston on the morning after Mr. Kerry's defeat, the harsh hindsight had begun. Despite the applause heaped upon his campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, some advisers were already pointing to what they called the major strategic errors of his campaign. All requested anonymity because they did not want to be seen as criticizing the candidate at a painful time.
Kerry advisers cited the senator's lack of a clear and consistent message right up until mid-September, and suggested that his theme-of-the-week inconsistency and shifting attacks on the president in some ways bore out Mr. Bush's argument that Mr. Kerry was too indecisive and vacillating to lead the nation.
Many advisers said Mr. Kerry's most obvious mistake was his long delay in responding forcefully to the attacks by members of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group of Vietnam veterans who criticized Mr. Kerry in a best-selling book and television commercials as a liar, a traitor and a coward.
But some of Mr. Kerry's most trusted friends and supporters said the delay on the Swift-boat issue only spotlighted a weakness in his campaign that had been apparent since Mr. Bush began labeling him as a flip-flopper in March, an accusation he never forcefully repulsed. "They weren't prepared to defend his character," a longtime friend said.
But there were other major behind-the-scenes mistakes. Much as Mr. Kerry had proved a fearless gambler a year ago, mortgaging his house to finance his candidacy and staking his campaign on a come-from-behind victory in Iowa, his campaign against Mr. Bush was marked by moments of caution, some advisers said, like his decision to accept $75 million in public money for the fall campaign and the spending cap that came with it, rather than opting out and raising and spending as much as he could.
The practical effect was that Mr. Kerry's campaign could not afford to spend money on advertising in August, at the height of the Swift-boat group's attacks.
Those who argued against opting out said Mr. Kerry would probably have had only $4 million to $5 million left after the Democratic convention. As it turned out, he had more than $45 million.
In the end, some of Mr. Kerry's longtime advisers asserted that his campaign and high-priced consultants had failed him in many ways, but that he had only himself to blame for the clutter of strategists, with no one clearly in charge, whose output was often late and not harnessed into an overall strategy.
"The campaign was never as good as the candidate," one old friend and strategist said. "But that's also a reflection on the candidate."
Bush campaign officials said they had a candidate who was better than their campaign, which was in itself a tightly run, richly financed and highly disciplined message machine. And while Mr. Bush's advisers readily conceded that he fell short in the debates, on the stump in front of friendly Republicans Mr. Bush was a charismatic performer.
"We had at the top of the ticket an inspiring individual who knew what he believed and did what he said," Mr. Rove said Wednesday. "At the end of the day, people voted for him for two reasons. One is they thought he could do the job, and two, they had deep doubts about the other guy."
Many of those voters, Mr. Rove said, were evangelical Christians, although he said he could not tell directly from polls of voters if evangelicals had turned out in greater numbers than they had in 2000. But there is some evidence that they did.
Mr. Rove has long said that Mr. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 in part because four million evangelicals stayed home, perhaps, he said, because of an old drunken driving charge against Mr. Bush that surfaced the weekend before the election and perhaps because many evangelicals traditionally viewed politics with distaste.
But in this election, evangelicals said they were motivated to turn out because of Mr. Bush's support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, prompted by a decision a year ago by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court allowing such marriages in the state. In addition, Republicans said evangelical voters had an extra incentive because 11 states had amendments to ban same-sex marriage on the ballot.
"For the first time in our country's history, the definition of marriage has been changed by a court," said Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy at Focus on the Family, an influential conservative Christian group, in an interview on Wednesday. "That was a wake-up call."
Mr. Minnery said that evangelicals turned out in large numbers for Mr. Bush in 2004 because they knew him better than they did in 2000 and recognized the biblical phrasing in many of his speeches. "In his first term, he was the most openly Christian president we have had in our lifetime," Mr. Minnery said. "And that endeared many Christian people to him."'
Republicans also said Mr. Bush won by broadening the reach of his party, much like Ronald Reagan did in the 1980's.
"He kept faith with every piece of the center-right coalition - taxpayers, property owners, investors, businessmen, home-schoolers, gun owners and all communities of faith," said Grover Norquist, a leading conservative and the president of Americans for Tax Reform.
Mr. Rove argued that rather than just playing hard to his Republican base, Mr. Bush's record total of 58 million votes, the most votes for any presidential candidate in history, proved that he had appealed well beyond his core conservative supporters to small-business people, families concerned about "the coarseness of the culture," and "security moms and dads" worried about terrorism.
Significantly, polls on Election Day showed that the number of voters who said they were concerned about moral values - who voted in overwhelming numbers for Mr. Bush - was higher than those who said they were worried about the war, terrorism, the economy or jobs.
Republicans also said that Mr. Bush won by running hard in the end in what Ken Mehlman, the president's campaign manager, called strong Republican "fortress" areas surrounded by rapidly growing suburbs and exurbs filled with first-time voters.
"The thing that characterized the areas more than anything else was a growing propensity to vote Republican and a significant number of potentially unregistered supporters," Mr. Rove said.
If Mr. Bush and Mr. Rove were determined from the first to get every last evangelical Christian to the polls, Mr. Kerry and his advisers seemed to respond only relatively late in the campaign to what polls eventually showed was his gaping weakness with voters on the question of whether a candidate shared their values.
Campaign aides knew all along that Mr. Kerry, whose New England reticence held him back from discussing his religion, was at a steep disadvantage with Mr. Bush among regular churchgoers. But while he began over the summer sprinkling the word "values" into his speeches, it was mainly in saying that hard work should be rewarded, that the middle class and the poor should be given help before the rich got more.
And while Mr. Bush could use code words like "culture of life" and "armies of compassion" to motivate evangelicals, Mr. Kerry found himself preaching the separation of church and state from pulpits. Late in the campaign, Mr. Kerry spent every weekend visiting churches, taking communion from Roman Catholic priests who welcomed him despite his support for abortion rights.
Sam Greenberg, one of Mr. Kerry's pollsters, said the faith and values problem was "consuming," and added: "He was having immense difficulty breaking through. He's not as secular as he was defined, but that was not what he was able to communicate."
Mr. Kerry did not help himself in getting voters to see him as an ordinary guy when he was photographed windsurfing in August off his Nantucket home, or that he chose a resort to prepare for his first debate, while Mr. Bush was on his ranch, or that his wealthy wife spoke English with an unfamiliar accent and Mr. Kerry spent his childhood summers in France.
"People don't windsurf in Youngstown, Ohio," a longtime top Kerry adviser said.
There were also Mr. Kerry's swings and misses: calling the Green Bay Packers stadium Lambert Field, not Lambeau, and mangling the names even of his own beloved Red Sox.
In candid moments, Mr. Kerry himself often said that, with war and terrorism occupying the nation, he did not think "likeability" would play as important a role in the campaign as it had in the 2000 election. But the longtime aide said that Mr. Kerry, as a challenger facing a well-known incumbent, had no margin of error in his efforts to connect with voters. "It all goes into the pot," the aide said.
The values problem took on enormous significance, Kerry aides said, precisely because of the electoral terrain the campaign was fighting on, which they said posed a major challenge for Democrats in the future: how to talk to Americans in the heartland.
"We were working from a pretty small map here," said Steve Elmendorf, Mr. Kerry's deputy campaign manager. "He was pressuring us much more in places where Gore had won than we were pressuring him where he had won, like New Hampshire and Nevada: those were only four electoral votes. He had us in New Mexico, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and in Pennsylvania and Michigan we could never take our eye off the ball.
"It wasn't a resource question so much as we weren't competitive in places like Missouri and Arkansas that Bush had won, so he was able to take enormous resources and really pour them into those states," Mr. Elmendorf said.
Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist, said the unfavorable electoral map meant Mr. Kerry had no obvious recipe for a victory, which explains why advisers experimented continually with positive and negative messages and with focusing more on domestic policy or national security.
"I've been in campaigns when you had a clear path to victory if you did one, two and three," Mr. Carrick said. "Here, there was some message testing, because there was no clear path."