Politics & Policy

Adding Up Bush’S Political Capital

He's got the most to spend since Reagan.

President Bush says he intends to spend his newly won political currency on a second-term agenda headed by tax simplification and Social Security reform. In view of congressional Democrats’ past obstructionism, the president’s plans might be dismissed as wishful thinking, except for this: Bush now has the near-unanimous support of the selfsame voters who gave America the Reagan Revolution two dozen years ago.

After a lengthy absence, nearly all of the voters who put Ronald Reagan in the White House have now returned to the GOP fold. This indeed was the most significant — and as yet unnoticed — development of the 2004 election.

Many of these voters had abandoned the GOP after President George H. W. Bush reneged on his “no new taxes” pledge. A goodly number opted for Ross Perot or Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. They then split about evenly between George W. Bush and Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race, with one notable exception. Older voters, whose age cohort supported Reagan’s 1988 reelection by a rousing 3-to-2 ratio, preferred Gore to Bush by 51 percent to 47 percent.

All was forgiven on Election Day. President Bush received his strongest electoral support from the very same voters who in 1980 rejected the GOP machine candidate (i.e., Bush, the elder) in favor of a California maverick who advocated such radical ideas as cutting taxes and winning the Cold War. Pro-Reagan voters unceremoniously tossed out Jimmy Carter (cardigan and all) and ushered in a man who, arguably, became the most beloved president since FDR.

These selfsame voters last week rallied behind the president, as the accompanying tables illustrate. (The data are from the biannual “Portrait of the Electorate 1972-2004,” published a week ago by the New York Times. The analysis is based on post-poll interviews with 13,600 voters, conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for the National Election Pool, a consortium of the five major news networks and the Associated Press.)

The use of color-coding traces voting history by age cohort (e.g., the 45-59 year-olds of 1984 were the 61-75 year-olds of 2000). The results show many Reagan backers leaving the GOP in the 1990s. Then, in the 2000 race, these same voters gave Bush only halfhearted support. Now, however, they’re back among the GOP ranks en masse.

In this year’s election, for example, Bush faired almost as well as Reagan did among men, garnering 50 percent to 56 percent of the male Reaganite vote. Reagan’s support among men in 1980 and 1984 ranged from 59 percent to 63 percent across all age brackets, with the exception of the youth vote of 1980.

Pro-Reagan women similarly closed part of the “gender gap” that developed between male and female voters in the 1990s. Bush and Kerry each captured more or less half of the women old enough to have voted in the early 1980s. While this was a respectable result for the GOP by recent standards, it pales in comparison to the actual numbers Reagan racked up among women voters, whose support for him in two elections ranged from 50 percent to 57 percent among all age groups, save for young female voters in 1980.

Now that most of Reagan’s supporters are back, President Bush has reason to exude an unbridled confidence, for he knows the true dimensions of his reelection victory. “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it,” he said. “It is my style.”

Muscling Senate Democrats won’t be easy, but it is doable. To defeat filibusters will require peeling off at least 5 of the 14 red-state Democrats, several of whom will be forced in the next two years to choose between party allegiance and political survival. Three in particular — Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, and South Dakota’s Tim Johnson — are in the tightest binds, having won their own elections by smaller margins than Bush received in their respective states.

Red-state Democrats face a conundrum: To obstruct the president at every critical turn means asserting that voters gave these Senators mandates to negate the mandate the electorate gave Bush on November 2. Democrats have been known to advance illogical arguments, of course. Yet even red-state Democrats can’t deny that the president now has the backing of a majority of the nation’s voters, including majorities in their own home states, and to block his key legislation means putting their own political fortunes at risk.

– William P. Kucewicz is editor of GeoInvestor.com and a former editorial board member of the Wall Street Journal.


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