EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the November 29, 2004, issue of National Review.
It is difficult yet to have much perspective on Bush’s freshly minted reelection victory, but it may well rank among the most extraordinary Republican campaigns ever. Confronting bad news almost daily, a ferocious attack by a united Left, and a hostile press corps, Bush won a resounding victory. His campaign was strategically brilliant and technically proficient, correctly assessing the nature of the electorate and election from the beginning and acting on its knowledge with great tactical verve. It built a grassroots force that, had it been marshaled on behalf of a liberal, would be celebrated as a great “people’s army.” It creatively found a way around the establishment press. And it brought home a win that could be a long-term boon to conservative ideas.
The strategy and the tone were set at the top, by the president most importantly, and by the aide he has dubbed “the architect,” Karl Rove. They created a team that was cohesive and disciplined, and carried out from beginning to end a plan toward one goal: a victory that would build a second-term mandate. “The president is one who believes in building a mandate — always has,” says Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie. “That’s what elections are for.” It was not to be an empty Reagan 1984 or Clinton 1996 reelection.
The basic conception of the campaign never changed. Early on, Bush pollster Matthew Dowd explains, “we realized that 90 to 92 percent of the country were aligned, and only about 7 to 8 percent were swing voters or independent voters. That was a big thing for us to notice and model the campaign on.” It dictated two strategic insights. One was that there would have to be an emphasis on the Republican base. After 9/11, the Bush team saw that levels of GOP support for the president were going to stay at historic highs, which would allow them to maximize turnout. “He has stronger support among Republicans than Reagan,” Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman says, “and the Republican base is 10 points bigger than it was then.” Dowd says a presidential campaign traditionally spends 85 to 90 percent of its resources chasing swing voters. The Bush campaign instead roughly split its resources between the base and swing voters. “We knew if we turned out our base, we could split independent voters or lose them slightly, and still win,” Dowd says.
The other insight was that — as a function of the division in the country — Bush’s job approval would probably neither dip to a level where it would be impossible for him to win, nor rise to a level where victory would be easily assured. Bush would exist in what Dowd calls an “in-between world” for an incumbent — higher than losers like Carter, lower than winners like Reagan. This meant that the election would not be entirely defined by attitudes toward the incumbent, as the Kerry campaign hoped and as many other presidential elections had been. It would be a choice between two candidates, making it especially important for the Bush team to define Kerry as unacceptable.
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