Five Key Facets of the Bush-Kerry Race

Even if you hate football, follow me with this analogy: In the 1991 Super Bowl, on the final play of the game, the Buffalo Bills' kicker, Scott Norwood, missed what would have been the game-tying field goal. Ergo, the New York Giants won because the Bills missed a field goal, right?

Well, not really. As notoriously unabashed Bills' fan Tim Russert will tell you, the Giants really won because they kept the ball on offense for twice as long as the Bills did. But wait, you say. If Scott Norwood had made the field goal, how much did time of possession really matter? It's simply human nature to judge all contributory events through the prism of outcome.

With that in mind, here are five aspects of the 2004 presidential campaign that, as the football folks like to say, are subject to further review:

Choice of Running Mate

Bush/Cheney was really the only way to go. Bush's great asset is consistency, and dumping Cheney would have undermined that. As for Kerry's pick of Edwards, it was mostly celebrated in the press at the time, but, looking back, there might have been better choices available. Edwards didn't gain one electoral vote for the Democrats over 2000. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson might have. The Kerry camp undoubtedly factored in Richardson's negatives, stemming from his tenure as Bill Clinton's secretary of Energy; noted Richardson's status as America's most prominent Hispanic politican; then still decided to go with Edwards. New Mexico remained "too close to call" Wednesday morning, but the latest tallies have the former blue state leaning toward the red column.

Absence of Bush Attacks During the DNC

Before the Democratic National Convention, most voters were unaware of all but the most even the basic elements of John Kerry's bio. One could criticize how the Democrats presented that bio — specifically their emphasis of the Vietnam experience at the expense of all else — but it did make sense to leave the nastiness until later. If you can find me a voter today — just one voter — who said he voted for Bush because he really hadn't heard anything negative about him, I'll change my mind.

The Market-Tested, Scientifically Honed TV Ads

One big "bleh." Ashley Faulkner's hug, Kerry's plan for drugs, a weary nation shrugs. It was called the air war, but felt more like trench war fare in World War I, where on a given day thousands would be sacrificed for a few feet of terrain. The sheer volume of the ads prevented any from breaking through the clutter.

GOTV

As in "get out the vote." And not just "get out the vote," but increasingly "get out new voters." The Democrats said bigger numbers would come from registering more poor people, minorities and young people. Republicans pointed to a greater evangelical vote, driven by four years of faith-based initiaitvies and more specifically, in states like Ohio, by anti-gay marriage initiatives. Who was right? The Democrats offer some empirical evidence in the form of voter registration numbers. Before Tuesday, believing that Republicans really could mobilize Christians as never before seemed like an act of faith. I recall one evangelical voter in particular — Pamela Jordan of Findlay, Ohio — who said "I trust God's will will win out, and Bush will be re-elected." Then she went on to say: "I never voted in my life and I don't plan on voting this year." Now it seems that most of the Democrats' pre-election claims amounted to hype. Roughly the same percentage of young people voted as they did in 2000. The same was true for African Americans. But more evangelical Christians did vote, and more of them voted for Bush. The Pamela Johnson factor suggests there might even be more sideline evangelicals to tap.

Framing the Election

Most re-election campaigns are a referendum on the incumbent, but Karl Rove and the president's campaign advisers made it a referendum on John Kerry. In the fall of 2001, George W. Bush had the highest approval rating a president had ever seen. By the summer of 2004 he had gotten the United States into a war that the majority of Americans thought was a mistake, the economy was hurting, and it became clear that he was going to preside over a net job loss. So his campaign focused on the potential job that his challenger would do. You'll see how well that strategy worked every time you hear from an undecided voter: "I didn't like what the president has done, but I just don't know if I can bring myself to vote for John Kerry."

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