I don’t completely agree with the Jonathan Rauch column he is trying to debunk, but Peter Wehner overstates his case in arguing that 2004 wasn’t basically a base election. Wehner recites some of the familiar factoids: “President Bush increased his vote total from 2000 to 2004 by almost a quarter (23 percent)… President Bush not only mobilized his base, he increased his popularity among Hispanics, African Americans, Catholics, and Jews, to list just a few of the non-traditional Republican groups whom Bush appealed to in his reelection campaign. Bush also became the first president since 1988 to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote and received the most votes by any presidential candidate in history.”
Let’s look at those non-base numbers first. Bush improved his share of the African American vote from 9 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2004, a pretty modest increase. He also saw his percentage of the Jewish vote rise from 19 percent to about 24 percent, again not exactly earth shattering. Among Hispanics, Bush probably got closer to 40 percent than the 44 percent in widely trumpeted early 2004 exit polls, about five points better than 2000. Bush lost every group he, according to Wehner, “increased his popularity among,” except for Catholics.
Now let’s take a look at Bush’s swelling vote totals overall from 2000 and 2004. In 2000, the two candidates of the left — Gore and Nader — together won about 51 percent of the vote. It was therefore impressive for Bush to cobble together a majority in a two-man race four years later, especially with such high turnout from Democratic voting blocs. But there was high turnout from Republican voting blocs as well, including evangelicals. Both parties turned out their base. That’s why “Bush received the most votes by any presidential candidate in history,” and it’s also why John Kerry received the second most votes of any presidential candidate in history.
In the end, Bush was reelected with just 51 percent of the vote. That is roughly three points better than his 2000 showing, despite 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush tax cuts, and all the benefits of incumbency. He flipped exactly two states, Iowa and New Mexico, while losing New Hampshire.
All that is to say, despite all the improvements in raw numbers, 2004 looked mostly like 2000. Which is to say, mostly like a base election.