Who would have thought that lying exit polls, socially conservative Democrats, and evangelical Christians would have dwarfed traditional issues like national security and economic prosperity on Election Day 2004. But — at the margin and in important ways — the exit polls and the evangelicals may have pushed President George W. Bush over the victory line.
The exit-polling phenomenon is a disgrace. Two companies, Edison Media Research and Mitofsky, did the polling for The Associated Press and the television networks. Their early results were devastating for Bush and his supporters — in one case showing Pennsylvania down by 19 percentage points, which was a complete fiction. Elsewhere, these fraudulent forecasts showed Kerry winning handily in Florida and Ohio. A solid pro-Bush stock market rally immediately reversed on this alleged news. Tradesports.com, the online pay-for-play poll, shifted from a near 20-point Bush victory forecast to a 40-point Bush deficit estimate.
These were the same people who screwed up in 2000. Somewhere in the future this whole process must be completely changed, or even eliminated.
But wait. Could it be that these early phony returns, showing Bush going down in defeat, actually motivated some of his hardest-core supporters to get out and vote?
Though the established media outlets almost never talk about it, Bush’s core support group has all along been the born-again Christians. They make up roughly 40 percent of the American population. They are middle-class folk who go to church, read the Bible, and practice traditional virtues and values — make that religious values — in their daily lives. They are married and tend to stay married. They are shopkeepers and small-business people. Many are stay-at-home self-employed. Others are salespeople who travel their regions as insurance brokers, or financial planners, or corporate product representatives. They drive SUVs. They shop at Wal-Mart and JCPenney. They are middle class.
Yes, and they believe in God — as does their candidate, George W. Bush. They also believe in traditional marriage between a man and a woman. And as befits the traditional nuclear family, they love their children and believe strongly in a child’s right to life.
In Ohio, which turned out to be Bush’s most important swing state after all, one-fourth of voters identified themselves as born-again Christians, and they backed Bush by a three-to-one margin. These folks turned out heavily to support Ohio’s state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. In fact, voters in 11 states approved constitutional amendments limiting marriage to one man and one woman.
Much like Ronald Reagan’s opposition to abortion in 1980, a move designed to express his belief in the issue while also reaching out to socially conservative Democrats, Bush worked the traditional-marriage issue heavily in the last days of the campaign. Kerry, meanwhile, steadfastly favored a pro-abortion stance and opposed the Defense of Marriage Act. The Bush strategy apparently won out. It may have been the single most important closer in Bush’s Electoral College and popular-vote victory.
Ironically, in the final days of the election, Bush seems to have lost ground on the issue of terrorism and the Iraq war. Conventional wisdom again proved wrong. Because of Bush’s confusing response, Kerry gained points on the Al Qaqaa ammunition controversy. And the last-minute reappearance of Osama bin Laden reminded people that Bush never truly rebutted Kerry’s Tora Bora outsourcing charge.
Kerry played his cards shrewdly in this area and picked up support, even as he went against the Clintonian advice of his advisors who thought he should stick to health care and jobs.
But in the end the evidence points to the evangelicals as Bush’s primary engine of victory. It’s still a rumor, but if Team Kerry leaked phony exit-poll numbers they may have actually increased the Christian turnout, rather than depressing it.
All of this points to an important political thought: Rather than wasting time trying to persuade blue-state liberals to switch their allegiance to conservative principles — whether national security, tax cuts or the social issues — it is much more productive to expand the base of red-state conservatives and get them to turn out heavily on Election Day. America is a conservative “right” nation. It is now governed by a conservative president, a conservative Senate, a conservative House of Representatives and a majority of conservative governors.
If the Bush-led conservative majority keeps its promises on a strong defense, on spreading peace-inducing freedom and democracy around the world, on limited government and lower tax rates to promote economic growth at home, on the pro-consumer, pro-investor, ownership-society, reformist conservative agenda for Social Security, health care and education, and on the social values of protecting the unborn and preserving traditional marriage, then the 2004 election outcome will represent a huge step in the right direction for this great country.