One of the most surprising things about the presidential election four years ago is that the already unpopular war in Iraq was not the top issue in voter’s minds. Nor was it the top national security issue.
To get elected, Sen. John McCain needs something similar to happen this year. To construct such a scenario, it is helpful to reconstruct what happened four years ago.
By Election Day 2004, Americans were already unhappy with the war in Iraq. In the national exit poll conducted that day, 52 percent of voters said things were going badly in Iraq, while 44 percent said things were going well. Among the majority who thought the war was going badly, Sen. John Kerry defeated President Bush 82 percent to 17 percent.
Bush barely scraped out a victory despite the war. Why?
Obviously, when you are talking about an electorate that comprises millions of voters, there is no single answer. But the exit poll did point to some reasons, which can be analyzed within three great overarching issues: national security, the economy and the culture.
First, despite the dissatisfaction with the Iraq war, Bush still bested Kerry on the overarching issue of national security.
Even though 52 percent of voters thought things were going badly in Iraq, an even larger share — 55 percent — believed the war in Iraq was merely part of the larger war on terrorism. Eighty-one percent of these voters supported Bush.
Many voters decided that the broader war against terrorism — i.e, al-Qaida — was more important than Iraq itself. Thus, when voters were asked the most important issue in determining their vote, 15 percent said Iraq. Seventy-three percent of these supported Kerry. But an even larger share of the voters, 19 percent, said terrorism was most important. Eighty-six percent of these supported Bush.
In a similar vein, only 40 percent said they "trusted" Kerry to handle terrorism, while 58 percent said they "trusted" Bush.
A second factor that helped make the 2004 election close is that there were actually more voters (20 percent) who thought the economy-jobs was the most important issue than who thought terrorism was most important. Kerry beat Bush among these voters 80 percent to 18 percent.
This is surprising because gross domestic product grew by 3.6 percent in 2004, the highest annual rate of the Bush presidency. Nonetheless, according to the exit poll, 52 percent of voters in 2004 said they believed the national economy was "not good" or "poor."
Bush’s trump card in 2004 was the third great issue: the culture.
More voters (22 percent) cited moral values as the most important issue in 2004 than cited either the economy (20 percent) or terrorism (19 percent). These voters supported Bush over Kerry by the same margin that economy-jobs voters supported Kerry over Bush: 80 percent to 18 percent.
According to 2004 exit poll, Sen. Barack Obama’s "bitter" people — those clinging to religion and guns — voted for Bush by large margins.
Of the 16 percent who attended church more than once a week, Bush won 64 percent to 35 percent. Of the 26 percent who attended church weekly, Bush won 58 percent to 41 percent. Of the 14 percent who merely attended once a month, Bush won 50 percent to 49 percent.
Forty-one percent of voters lived in a household with a gun owner. They supported Bush 63 percent to 41 percent.
Similarly, Bush won 59 percent to 40 percent among voters who were married with children.
Looking at 2008, the question is: Can McCain hold together the same coalition that re-elected Bush in 2004? Can he win a third Bush term? It won’t be easy.
Whether Obama or Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, McCain, like Bush, will win among voters who go to church regularly, own guns and are married with children. McCain must work to inspire large turnout among these voters, while avoiding any further source of alienation (e.g., naming a pro-abortion vice presidential candidate or giving a convention speech focusing on "comprehensive immigration reform").
Given Bush’s inability to win among voters who considered the economy and jobs the top issue during an election year when growth was strong and unemployment was trending downward, it is unrealistic to hope McCain can win among economy-jobs voters in a year when growth is slowing and the unemployment is trending upward.
That leaves national security. In 2006, Democrats took control of Congress in a referendum on Iraq. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency statistics published by the Government Accountability Office, violence reached an all-time high in Iraq in October 2006 — the month leading up to the midterm election.
Since then, the surge McCain advocated has diminished violence in Iraq. Yet, both Democratic candidates insist they will withdraw our troops.
To win in November, McCain must persuade voters that withdrawing from Iraq before that country is stabilized will lead to a catastrophic reversal in our ability to defend this country from terrorist attacks.
If he can do that, the Democrats could lose a third straight presidential election.