The Election of 2004

Russell D. Renka
Professor of Political Science
November 18, 2004 (and revisions 12/10/04)

        This country was divided 49-49 between the two parties in 2000.  Now in 2004, it is divided about 51 to 48 for the GOP.  George W. Bush with 51.0 percent became the first presidential candidate since 1988 to win a majority of the national popular vote.  In addition, his party picked up a gain of 4 seats each in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate to retain their narrow partisan majorities there.  Thus both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue were Republican for 2005 and 2006.

The Presidency

    The presidential election winners were rightfully feeling the glow of victory.  That was not the case in 2000, where George W. Bush won just 47.9 percent and took 37 days before Supreme Court declaration that he had officially won Florida (Bush v. Gore 531 U.S. 98(2000) [00-949]).   The gain of three percentage points conferred some legitimacy and confidence to rule after 2004.  Some winners inflated this into high-flown assertions of an election mandate in 2004.  Vice President Dick Cheney said he and President Bush ran "forthrightly on a clear agenda for this nation's future, and the nation responded by giving him a mandate." (Adam Nagourney, 11/4/04, The New York Times Washington Election 2004 Terrorism, Iraq and Economy Are at Top of His Agenda)   But professional election observers did not buy it.  Charlie Cook of The Cook Political Report says "Even though President Bush and his Republican Party won a decisive victory, Election 2004 was hardly the transformational contest that some are making it out to be." (GOP Turns Out A Win - A Shift, but Far From a Transforming One)  So how different were things in 2004 from 2000?

    Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections portrays all 3050 U.S. counties in deepened blue for Republican terrain and darkened red for Democratic counties.  Here is the election of 2004 (source:


And here is year 2000 (source:


    One can hardly miss the deja vu sense of being here before.  This portrait-pair gives away the stable pattern of Republican and Democratic division that now exists.  The Republicans prevail in the vast majority of rural areas, save those with heavy black or brown pluralities.  The Democrats prevail in most major cities, especially in the heavily populated northeast and west coast regions.  In popular numbers but not in counties, the two parties are virtually tied.

    For those who doubt the urban concentration of Democrats and rural focus of Republicans, I recommend a close look at Robert Vanderbei's Election 2004 Results.  It shows the nation's 2004 county-by-county returns in reverse colors from Leip, with red for Republicans, blue for Democrats, and purple for the closely contested.  Next below it is a nice population density map for adjacent reference back and forth.  Scroll further down this site to this 11/08/04 entry:  "Here's an animated gif that blinks back and forth between 2000 and 2004: TwoMaps.gif" for a display allowing anyone to single out a county and compare the change in presidential voting allegiance by party.  Elsewhere, a good map from the The New York Times Search (via search term "Election 2004 - A Divided Electorate") illustrates the same urban-heavy Kerry vote v. rural and exurban Bush vote.

    In addition, the Vanderbei site provides a "mountain version" map with the major cities as large shadowed mountains (full-sized gif at  The association of blue-color Democratic areas with concentrated population becomes clear if one knows where the nation's two or three dozen leading cities are (and if not, just pull out a political map by the viewer and follow it that way).

    The rural distribution of Republican vote afforded the victors a nice web opportunity for creative artwork claiming both victory and patriotism unto themselves.  This was done at George W. Bush 2004 Bush Cheney 2004 via the "Bush Country" mapping of the flag motif with a few moth holes representing the rare Democratic counties. 

The 109th Congress and the State legislatures

    Along with a president, the voters selected the 535 members of the 109th Congress on 2 November 2004.  This new Congress is remarkably alike the old 108th.  Both demonstrate what Fair Vote calls "monopoly politics" by incumbents of the two parties (Center for Voting and Democracy - Congressional and State Elections).  The results are closely consistent with informed forecasts such as Congress Still in the Balance by David W. Brady and Jeremy C. Pope.  In the new 435-member House, only 33 members retired or sought other office.  The 402 incumbents suffered a remarkably low 9 defeats, 2 in partisan state primaries and 7 on the November 2 general election.  There will be 393 House veterans next to 42 freshmen.  The 97.8 percent success rate of incumbents testifies that status quo politics prevails in the House.  With those successes, the new House has a party balance of 232 Republicans, 202 Democrats, and 1 independent.  This is practically a carbon copy of the old 108th House, which had two fewer Republican seats (Renka, Presidents and Congresses).  Hardly any incumbents won narrowly, as a mere 17 of the 435 won by 55.9% or less, and most of those were in open seats (The Cook Political Report, 12/6/04, at 2004_house_55_dec6).  What is more, the seats that switched Republican came entirely from the gain of 5 or 6 seats in Texas, where House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tx.) engineered a successful partisan statewide gerrymander that defeated 4 incumbent Democrats who were placed into heavily Republican districts.  But for that maneuver, the House Republicans would have had a net seat loss in the 109th House.  Political engineers get more credit than voters for moving the House rightward a slight bit in 2004.

    State legislative elections did not show any Republican trend either.  To the contrary, Republicans lost a net of 76 seats, going from a 64-seat edge nationally down to a 12-seat deficit among 7382 total seats (National Conference of State Legislatures, Press Release Democrats Appear to Make Gains in America's State Legislatures; Top 10 Legislative Election Sites Named; Election Results and Analysis).  Numerous chambers changed from one party to the other with small shifts in seat control, attesting that the two parties are basically at par in seats and public allegiance (NCSL's StateVote 2004 and NCSLnet StateVote 2004 Party Control).  That's easy to miss for Missourians, who witnessed consolidation of Republican control as they took the governor's chair plus 120 of the 197 seats in the Missouri General Assembly.  This was a gain of 10 seats over the 2002 result (NCSLnet Search Results Partisan Composition of State Legislatures - Missouri).

    The U.S. Senate moved rightward to the Republicans a good bit more than the U.S. House did.  This, too, was in keeping with the prevalent status quo of the past decade.  Four southern white Democrats retired, and all four turned over to conservative Republicans to produce a net gain of four seats for the GOP (Renka, Presidents and Congresses).  The 11 southern states now have 18 Republicans and just 4 Democrats representing them in the Senate.  This has some important consequences for devotees of moderation.  Observers note and often lament the Senate's emptying out of moderates, leaving two ideological rivals grouped on each side of the center aisle.  But that is part of a decade-long Senate trend and was easily foreseen to go further in 2004.  For more than a decade, congressional seats have exhibited a powerful tendency to revert to whichever party normally prevails on the presidential vote in that district or state.  Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle lost South Dakota reelection as this state voted for George W. Bush by a 3 to 2 margin (59.91% Bush to 38.41% for Kerry).  The four seaboard southern states with new Senate Republicans went 56.6 percent on average for Bush.  The Democrats gained their two new Senators from Colorado, a mildly Republican state, and the Democrats' Illinois, where Barack Obama faced a carpetbagger from Baltimore in a non-contest.  We are two more years down the road to orthodox party division, with a Democratic New England and Pacific Coast v. a Republican deep south and plains states.

The Voters

    George W. Bush voters in 2004 were basically those who liked him in 2000, albeit with plenty of reinforcements causing a much higher voter turnout of slightly over 122,000,000 in 2004 compared to 105,500,000 in 2000 (Curtis Gans, CSAE 2004 election report; Dave Leip's Atlas, 2004 Presidential Election Results and 2000 Presidential Election Results).  But the core elements of each party coalition did not change.  Polls show the same basic Bush supporters in each election:  higher income white voters, the business community, self-described ideological conservatives, and traditionalist churchgoers.  Democratic voters were lower income, labor union members, self-described liberals, and not traditionalist churchgoers (2004 exit polls on income and occupation: Election 2004; religion in 2004:  The Pew Forum, The American Religious Landscape and Politics, 2004 and 2004 election exit poll results--by religion and values issues --; earlier-election comparable survey results: The NES Guide; summation of polls: PollingReport's Election 2004).  This holds as much for Congress as the presidency (PollingReport's Congress 2004).

    Voter tendencies are the chief guide to presidential campaign strategies.  Voters are not fickle.  The 2004 Bush campaign strategy was not to look for new social elements; it was to get those already adhering to Bush and Republicans to actually cast votes this time.  Likewise, the Democrats' base in society did not change.  They went for those expected to vote their way, poured their efforts into getting them to the polls, and got a record number of votes.  So did the Republicans.  Thus even the notable escalation in voter participation conformed to the presence of a stable base of reliable support for each party's presidential candidate.  What changed in 2004 was the intensity level of presidential campaigning, not the basic direction of appeals from each party and its candidate.

So What?

    Contrary to belief of many students, presidents-elect generally do not ignore the issues on which they won reelection.  That portends some difficulty for the Bush White House in 2005, however.  Craig Crawford of Congressional Quarterly says "In this election, "moral values" was a code phrase for abortion and gay marriage" in Ohio and elsewhere (CQ Today:  Supporters Look to Bush to Back Gay Marriage Ban).  Even though the exit polls showed only 22 percent of voters who cited moral values as their first consideration in voting, they broke very strongly in favor of Bush over Kerry.  The post-election Pew Survey showed likewise, with cultural issue voters being overwhelmingly Republican (Summary of Findings Voters Liked Campaign 2004, But Too Much 'Mud-Slinging'; go to 6th paragraph down).  Those cultural conservatives expect deference to their wishes now despite some warnings of future trouble for doing so (G.O.P. Adviser Says Bush's Evangelical Strategy Split Country).  Would the Bush Administration honor these supporters' wishes with Supreme Court nominees who oppose Roe v. Wade?  Would they do more than lip service to pushing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and, perhaps, equal protection for gay civil unions?

    The answer to both of these is yes.  In America, those in power govern according to who put them in power and who is perceived to have done so.  Once the formula for election becomes stable, then voters' past performance is a powerful guide to future behavior.  Even the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 did not override or basically alter the shape of American politics.  There is no difficulty in forecasting that George W. Bush will govern in 2005 as a conservative, not a moderate.  He did so in 2001 with lesser vote support than now.  In 2005 the House of Representatives was deeply divided by ideological lines, with the House Republicans doing as they wish and getting very conservative bills to the Senate for a mix of filibusters, compromises, and logrolls.  That is how the 107th and 108th Congresses operated, and the same proved true of the 109th.  Gay marriage and abortion give every promise of heated politics over the next two years.

    The mandate-seekers will also interpret 51 percent to be a warrant for fundamental changes in the American national tax code.  They plan to overhaul the income tax and promote partial privatization of Social Security--even though neither subject made it into the pre-election headlines very often (Edmund L. Andrews, 11/4/04, The New York Times Business News Analysis:  "Deficits and Tax System Changes in Bush's Second-Term Economy"). 

So just for your enjoyment or consternation:

Thanks to Barry Ritholtz at The Blogging of the President: 2004

Russell D. Renka

Copyright@2004-07, Russell D. Renka

Monday, 23 March 2009 04:16:13 PM -0600