Pollsters dissect Bush election win

Jack Hubbard Gary Langer

Gary Langer, director of polling for ABC News, said George W. Bush won the 2004 presidential election for two reasons: 9/11 and women voters.

Gary Langer, director of polling for ABC News, put it bluntly. President George W. Bush won the 2004 election for two reasons: 9/11 and women voters.

Langer was one of a host of leading media pollsters, top campaign planners and academic experts who gathered on campus Nov. 9 to offer their take on the presidential race and explain why and how voters handed Bush a second term in office.

"[Bush's] image of leadership, his focus on security, the fact that 9/11 hasn't happened again within this country's borders convinced Americans, especially women with families to protect, that this president should be returned to the White House," Langer said. "And he was."

Marking a major change from 2000 when Al Gore won women voters by 11 points, Kerry scored only a 3-point lead over Bush, Langer said. And although single women remained a core Democratic group, the president won married women by 11 percent, a block that was evenly split in 2000. "The shift that occurred in this election was among women," the polling expert said.

Langer spoke at "The 2004 American Presidential Election: Voter Decision-Making in a Complex World," the inaugural conference of the new Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRiSS). According to Director Karen Cook, cognizant dean for the social sciences in the School of Humanities and Sciences, the institute's mission is to "initiate and strengthen multidisciplinary research in the social sciences, enabling Stanford scholars and their collaborators to address significant challenges confronting us as a society."

Jon Krosnick, associate director of IRiSS and a professor of communication and of political science, said the conference is typical of events and activities planned for the institute. "Our goal here is to take advantage of a real-world phenomenon as an impetus for scholarship, … to understand it thoroughly and to conduct our academic investigation in collaboration with experts from outside the academy," he said in opening remarks.

Krosnick noted that the conference also marks the "beginning of a new era in the academic study of election and voting behavior." In 2006, Stanford is expected to join the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research in running the National Election Studies, a series of biennial surveys launched in 1948 at Michigan. These surveys, Krosnick said, are regarded as the leading academic studies focusing on the meaning of elections.

During the opening session, Mark Mellman, Sen. John Kerry's top pollster, and Jan van Lohuizen, the pollster for the Bush re-election effort, analyzed their campaigns. "Voters were not feeling a level of sufficient pain to reject the incumbent," Mellman said. "As we got closer to Election Day, there was a somewhat more positive feeling in the country, and that helped the incumbent."

Mellman said a majority of Americans think Bush has made the country safer during the last four years. "The Bush campaign used fear very well to make voters risk averse," he said. "It was clear to us that people wanted stability in leadership, [they] wanted stability in politics. We were at something of a loss. We tried [slogans such as] 'time for change,' we tried 'time for new direction,' but neither of these were as compelling as steady, consistent leadership."

Van Lohuizen described the 2004 race as "the tightest, narrowest campaign … I've been involved in," with voters more closely engaged at an earlier stage. Last December, he said, interest levels nationally were already higher than they were at the end of 2000.

Van Lohuizen said presidential campaigns are different from other campaigns because advertising has less of an impact than conventions and televised debates. This year, he said, an increasing number of voters received decision-making information from television news, the debates and the Internet. "The role of newspaper coverage declined dramatically," he said. Furthermore, although both parties put a lot of time and money into person-to-person contact, "it didn't pay off, it barely registered," he said.

The Bush campaign also courted the so-called "Hispanic vote." This year, the number of voters in this group increased 2 percent, with Bush receiving a 6 percent jump in support. "It was a major focus of our campaign," van Lohuizen said. But he noted that "huge differences" exist between Cuban Americans and Mexican Americans, and between recent arrivals and longtime residents: "It is not one vote."

The most surprising election news for the Republican Party concerns the issue of taxes, van Lohuizen said. "Kerry did better on taxes than Bush," he said. "We should win this by 40 percent. It was 5 [percent]. This is not at all good news for my party. The core issue we've been running on since Ronald Reagan seems to be going away."

The next conference session focused on research analysis of the campaign's impact, with presentations from Krosnick and political science Professors Morris Fiorina and Doug Rivers. "As the campaign went on, we cared less about Iraq and America's allies and more about the economy and terrorism," Krosnick explained. "This election was mostly a referendum on the Bush presidency."

In the afternoon, Simon Jackman, associate professor of political science, discussed whether the approval of ballots in 11 states banning same-sex marriages helped to swing the vote in favor of Bush. According to Jackman, states with the initiatives had a 3.3 percent higher turnout than in 2000, "but there [was] no relationship between change in Bush support and change in turnout." Rather, he said, the initiatives helped mobilize voters across party lines.

Langer from ABC agreed with Jackman, noting that opposition to gay unions is not an exclusive issue of the religious right. In fact, a majority or a significant number of Democrats, moderates and liberals backed the initiatives, he said. "In a national exit poll, only 25 percent of Americans support gay marriage," he said.

Looking forward, Langer said it is likely that the nation is in for a period of close races, with Republicans possibly becoming the greater political force after about a decade. Langer also noted that the data on Hispanic voting is important for the future. This year, he said, Hispanics accounted for 8 percent of the electorate and 16 percent among first-time voters.

"To the extent that voting is habit-forming, I think the Democrats have much to fear and the Republicans have much to be congratulated on in terms of motivating, mobilizing, signing up and delivering [this group] to the polls," he said.