Event Summary: The 2004 Election Results

November 5, 2004

Political experts at the Brookings Institution today analyzed the election results and their implications for politics and policymaking over the next few years. They said the nation still remained closely divided, notwithstanding the solid Republican victory.

“This was clearly a victory for the Republican party, but it was also an election with an enormous amount of stability,” said Brookings Senior Fellow Thomas Mann. He cited as evidence the switch of only three states to the Republican column and called the four million votes Bush gained since 2000 “not insignificant, but not huge.” He applied the same analysis to the Republicans’ net gain of four Senate seats, arguing that most Democrats lost because they were fighting for seats in Republican strongholds.

Mann went on to call the House of Representatives a “sea of stability”—only seven incumbents lost their seats on Tuesday. “We have squeezed out of our elections any capacity for major change in one direction or another [in the House of Representatives],” he said.

One of the highlights of the election was the near-historic number of voters who arrived at the polls, motivated by the belief that this election would decide the direction of the United States and energized by massive get-out-the-vote efforts.

“Turnout and mobilization efforts reached a whole new level during this election,” Brookings Visiting Fellow Anthony Corrado said. “Both sides conducted the most sophisticated operations we’ve ever seen, and knew more about each voter than we’ve ever known before. Tammany Hall had nothing on the Republicans and Democrats during this election.”

The prevailing wisdom has always been that higher turnout favors Democrats for two reasons. First, the percentage of registered voters in Democratic-leaning groups—African-Americans, Hispanics, low-income voters, and single people—is lower than among Republican constituencies. Second, Democrats have a better record of getting their voters to the polls on Election Day.

Tuesday’s election essentially turned that theory on its head, as record numbers of voters proved that when democracy works, it sometimes works against Democrats.

Corrado said that Democrats exceeded their turout goals despite Kerry’s defeat. In Florida, he said, Kerry received 600,000 more votes than Democrats assumed was necessary to carry the State, and still lost. In Ohio, where Kerry was also defeated, he received 500,000 more votes than the targeted number. The problem, according to Corrado, was that Republican turnout efforts were a staggering successful development that few anticipated.

“We probably underestimated the motivation in this core Republican constituency,” said Mann, who had predicted a Kerry win in this election. “We figured that most of the anger was on the Democratic side, and we really didn’t appreciate the extent to which other Americans felt that the whole nature of their belief systems—their faith, their lifestyles—were being threatened, and this was an opportunity to act on that. I think Karl Rove understood that.”

Brookings Visiting Fellow Michael McDonald, who worked with the exit-polling firm Edison-Mitofsky on Election Day, saw that Republican anger play out all over the country.

“Gay marriage was clearly pulling people to the polls,” McDonald said, citing evidence that battleground states with a gay marriage saw a 6.6 percent increase in voter turnout. Voter turnout in non-battleground states with a similar initiative saw the voter turnout increase by 4.5. (By way of comparison, turnout in the battleground states generally increased by 6.9 percent, while it rose only 1.6 percent in non-battleground states without a gay marriage initiative.)

The panel agreed that President Bush would likely interpret the election results as a mandate for his political agenda.

“I think the president will propose a very ambitious agenda,” Mann said. “Look at it this way: In 2000, after losing the popular vote and barely winning the electoral vote, he proved to be a very ambitious leader and in no way trimmed back his agenda. Now, with a more decisive victory, can you imagine him moving back from an ambitious agenda?”

Despite the panel’s grumbling about some of the disturbing elements of this presidential campaign, including political divisiveness, gerrymandering, and the enormous levels of money spent on campaigns and advertising, there was a silver lining to the political clouds.

“Don’t underestimate the importance of some of the really positive changes that occurred in our election,” Mann said. “The dramatic increase in the number of individual donors and the dramatic increase in the efforts by parties and other groups to reach out and personally engage individual voters are both healthy signs.”