Before Election Day our news organs and pollsters told us, with virtual uniformity, that the American electorate was sharply polarized and evenly divided. Since Nov. 2, however, much of the analysis and opinion has adopted an entirely different narrative: The Republicans won an imposing victory, evidenced by a presidential mandate and increased majorities in both the House and Senate that may portend GOP domination of American politics for years to come.
I was confused enough that I decided to do some research of my own. The numbers I found reflect a picture much more like the one being drawn before the election -- a closely divided country with neither party holding a commanding edge in voter loyalties.
Without diminishing the Republican victory or minimizing the Democrats' failure to capture a single Southern or mountain state, I think it's important to point out several election results that have drawn little or no attention.
- President Bush's popular-vote margin over John Kerry is the lowest ever recorded by an incumbent president -- slightly less than 2.5 percent of the more than 120 million votes cast, including absentee and provisional ballots that have now been tallied. Since 1824, when the national popular vote was first recorded, 14 presidents have been elected to serve again. Woodrow Wilson held the previous record for the closest popular-vote margin by a sitting president: 3.2 percent in the 1916 election.
This shouldn't underrate Bush's achievements. He improved on his 2000 performance, winning a slight majority this year -- a little less than 51 percent. And it is probably a tribute to his political skills that he won at all because sitting presidents tend to win decisively, or lose. But by the yardstick of history, the Bush victory cannot be taken as a resounding chorus of support from the American people asking for more of the same.
- Almost all of Bush's gains in 2004 can be accounted for by his success with one group -- voters 60 and over, according to exit polls. Leading press analyses of Bush's victory have glossed over this fact, focusing instead on young voters, who purportedly failed to appear in large numbers for Kerry; on Bush's gains among Hispanic voters; and on evangelical Christians who voted in larger numbers and strongly favored the president.
According to the national exit poll, conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for a broad pool of American news organizations, voters 60 and older were 24 percent of the electorate this year. (Hispanics, by contrast, were only 8 percent.) In 2000, Al Gore beat Bush in this age group, 51 percent to 47 percent. This time, the president ran seven percentage points ahead of his 2000 totals. That's a dramatic pickup. Had those 7 percent voted for Kerry instead, he would have narrowly won the popular vote and, with the same gain in Ohio, the Electoral College.
- Given the rising cost of Medicare premiums during Bush's first term, the unpopularity of his prescription drug plan, the flu vaccine shortage and the president's proposal to revamp Social Security by introducing private accounts, his success with older voters appears almost magical. To account for it, I asked the assistance of Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.
First, according to Joe Lenski, an Edison executive vice president, the president's gains came entirely from voters aged 60 to 74. He was up 10 percentage points among 60- to 64-year-olds and eight points among 65- to 74-year-olds, his two largest gains in any age group. With voters 75 and over -- the age group most acutely concerned about health care, according to the exit poll -- Bush lost three percentage points compared to 2000.
Why did Bush do so well with the over-60 crowd? Warren Mitofsky of Mitofsky International provided a further analysis that distinguished this age range from all voters. "The biggest difference," he said, "is among men. The men in the 60-and-over group supported Bush by 60 to 39 over Kerry. Among all men they supported Bush by only 55 to 44."
Mitofsky looked at the issues that might have keyed those different responses. Older voters did not cite "moral values" any more often than other Americans (22 percent in general, 21 percent among the over-60s). But three other issues seemed to cut in the president's favor with this age group: gay marriage, resistance to the idea that government should do more to solve problems, and Bush's handling of the economy. Of the three, Mitofsky said, gay marriage mattered most. In short, Bush's key success was with older -- and old-fashioned -- male voters.
- The notion that the touted youth vote didn't materialize for Kerry is, at best, a misleading one and probably just plain wrong. The percentage of voters under 30 (17 percent) was the same in both 2000 and 2004. But in the battleground states, this age group was 19.4 percent of the electorate and their turnout was almost 65 percent as compared with 51 percent four years ago, according to an analysis of the Edison/Mitofsky data done by CIRCLE, an organization that encourages and monitors the youth vote. Nationally, the under-30 group favored Kerry over Bush 55-44, a much better margin than Gore's 48-46 advantage in 2000, according to the exit poll data. In all-important Ohio, the differences were even starker: This year, the under-30 set favored Kerry, 56-42. In 2000, Gore won only 45 percent of the young Ohio vote.
Kerry's impressive gains among the young just weren't enough to overcome Bush's even more significant gains among the old. But that's hardly a formula for continued Republican domination. Time will take a heavier toll on the older group. And aging voters have sometimes favored Democrats anyway.
The Republican congressional success also could stand a more nuanced analysis. In Senate races, there can be no doubt that the GOP thumped the Democrats, capturing four seats to push its total to 55. The Democrats lost close elections they might have won in Alaska and South Dakota, and failed to retain a single seat being vacated by a retiring Democratic senator in the South.
The picture in the House, however, was far more equivocal. The Republicans gained four seats -- but the entire pickup, and more, came down to the five seats gained through a new redistricting of Texas' congressional districts, which took place not in response to the census but to Republicans gaining control of the Texas legislature in 2002. The legality of that second redistricting remains under challenge, with the U.S. Supreme Court having recently returned the question to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
Looking under the hood on this year's returns offers no guarantee that Democrats won't lose to the Republicans again in 2006 or 2008. Democrats discovered in November that much of the political belief system that governed their tactics was mythological. They have long blamed turnout and the Republican money machine for their losses. This year they made strong gains on both fronts and lost anyway.
One of the ironies of Republican claims that their victory this year presages a generation of triumph is that their view sells Bush short, just as the Democrats have habitually done. The implication is that the Republican message mattered more than their messenger. Yet Bush has shown an impressive ability, since he first ran for governor of Texas against Ann Richards, to win tough elections and connect with middle-class voters. The good news for Democrats? Bush won't be on the ballot four years from now.
The numbers from November aren't evidence of a political sea change. Instead they suggest that we will go into 2008 deeply and evenly divided again.
Scott Turow is a lawyer in Chicago and the author of several books, including "Reversible Errors" and "Ultimate Punishment."