P robably the best analysis of the election
that we’ve read comes from William
Saletan of the left-leaning Slate magazine, who argues that President Bush had a simple coherent message, compared to Sen. John Kerry’s muddled and inconsistent views.
Unlike many liberal commentators, Saletan hasn’t allowed his preferences to get in the way of his analysis. We watched the public opinion polls closely throughout the race, and although they ebbed and flowed, it was clear the president did a good job selling his outlook on the War on Terror to the public.
Simplicity isn’t necessarily bad.
We’ve had strong differences with the president on the Iraq war, in particular, but we always knew where Bush stood and admired his willingness to stand up for his convictions. A majority of the public seemed to agree, as evidenced by the president’s 3.5-million margin of victory in the popular vote, and his thin but decisive victory in electoral votes.
During the debates, most observers believed that John Kerry was the winner, according to post-debate polls. But the challenger never gained much ground after the debates, which goes back to the content and clarity of the message Bush offered, compared to the incoherence of Kerry’s views, especially on the war.
Kerry soared on style, but the clear Bush message resonated with the public.
There are other lessons from Tuesday. Late afternoon on Tuesday, the exit-polling data released on various Web sites, including the popular Drudge Report, seemed to suggest that most of the battleground states were moving clearly to Kerry. As a result, news anchors were predicting a long night for Republicans.
As actual votes came in, it was clear that the exit polls were significantly off the mark. Many opinion-page writers were preparing their “why Kerry won” editorial as the shift became pronounced, and it looked like the president would be competitive late into the night. That’s a testament to Karl Rove’s strategy of boosting the turnout of hard-core Republican voters, rather than competing for undecideds, who tend to break against the incumbent anyway.
Also out the window: the idea that record voter turnout would necessarily turn against Republicans. Once again, dramatic gains in Democratic youth voters never materialized.
One of the awful precedents from the 2000 election, courtesy of Al Gore’s decision to employ lawyers to fight for hanging chads rather than concede an election loss, is that legal challenges are now more likely. Late Tuesday night, vice presidential candidate John Edwards gave a short talk vowing to fight for every vote. That was the lawyerly Edwards, wired to fight to the last breath rather than concede anything.
It looked like a long fight ahead, perhaps a repeat of 2000, as reports suggested it would take 10 days or more to sort through the Ohio provisional ballots. Fortunately, Sen. Kerry saw the reality of the numbers and offered a gracious concession speech on Wednesday. His speech was a long-winded but a magnanimous and classy end to a long campaign.
President Bush was equally gracious as he accepted another four-year term, vowing to reach out to Kerry voters.
The American two-party system has a way of softening differences, so much so that third-party candidates have long decried the lack of significant policy differences between Republicans and Democrats. That’s true despite the rhetoric — the insistence that this is the “most important election of our lifetime.”
Take such words with a grain of salt.
Republicans should celebrate their big win, especially when the congressional gains are considered. Democrats should salve their wounds and move on. The nation will hum along as always, on the same basic course it has long been on.