The Presidential Election of 2004

Gerald  M. Pomper

Rutgers University


So soon? We have scarcely recovered from the constitutional tumult of the election of 2000, and the anomaly of a minority president. We have not yet absorbed the shock of September 11 - if we ever will - and we have not yet adjusted to our imperial role in the Mid-East. Yet, the relentless calendar of American elections brings us near the next presidential election. Within eight months, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary will again bring us unrepresentative results as we choose our national representatives.

Two questions are obvious. Who will win? What will it mean? Without the benefit or limitations of data, let me speculate on each.

Predicting the outcome of presidential elections is always a seductive pursuit. It is sometimes a dangerous one, as it was in 2000, when every political science analysis predicted the victory of Al Gore. Nevertheless, we cannot resist the siren's call. At this point, the re-election of George W. Bush seems, if not inevitable, highly likely, for a number of reasons.

-Incumbents always have an advantage, able to affect events and to campaign from the White House. Presidents running for re-election have been defeated only twice in the modern era, beginning in 1936. Both - Jimmy Carter and the elder Bush - faced unusual circumstances unlikely to be replicated in 2004. 

-Shifts in the distribution of electoral votes since the census of 2000 favor the younger Bush. States that he won in the last election (if we include Florida in his column) have added a net of seven electoral votes compared to states won by Al Gore. The shift in electoral votes is equivalent to throwing Democratic Iowa out of the Union.

-Money will work to the advantage of the Republicans. By present estimates, the Bush re-election campaign will spend $200 million before the Republican convention, boosting Bush in an uncontested nomination.  Democrats will be more limited in their resources and will probably deplete them by March in an exhausting primary campaign. Furthermore, in another demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, the campaign finance "reform" law will disadvantage the Democrats, who provided most of its legislative support.  Democrats will have few funds to spend until after their nominating convention, when federal funds become available. They will also be bereft of the large - but now illegal - "soft money" contributions that had given them resources almost equal to those of the Republicans.

-Voting turnout has been trending against  the Democrats, with drops in voting participation concentrated among lower-income voters that provide the base of the party's support. Republicans, furthermore, have become expert in "get out the vote" efforts, matching a previous Democratic advantage. These efforts alone explain the G.O.P. gains in the congressional elections of 2002; they will surely be repeated in 2004.

-The Republicans' GOTV effort illustrates its national party organizations' skillful campaign tactics, deployed in and out of government. The Republicans have become highly competent in developing messages and images, manipulating the news and supine media, raising funds, and deploying resources. Democrats lack a disciplined central organization, a mass financial base, and a coherent policy stance - as illustrated by the party's confused positions on the Iraq war. At this point, additionally, no potential Democratic candidate appears to have broad personal appeal.

-President Bush has gained, and held, strong personal popularity. The terrorist attacks of September 11 cleansed the stains of his minority popular vote in 2000 and his dubious victory in Florida and the national electoral vote. After September 11, as the country ralied around the flag, his favorable ratings reached the highest levels ever recorded. As they slowly eroded, the military victory in Iraq boosted them again to a level never seen for a president in his third year in office. The Republican campaign will emphasize these issues of terrorism and war, beginning with evocative pictures of Bush at the World Trade Center site during the Republican convention, cleverly scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

In these circumstances, the prospects for a Democratic victory come down to two slim possibilities, luck abroad and the economy at home.  International events may work against the administration as it deals with nuclear proliferation in North Korea, the decay of American alliances, and the factional contests in post-war Iraq. The impressive military conquest of Baghdad may lead to the sin of hubris among the administration's civilian warriors, already evidencing self-confidence to the point of arrogance. Still, short of a new war or foreign catastrophe, the voters are likely to remember only the conquest of Iraq, not the squabbling of Shiite factions.

A flawed economy is always a danger to incumbents, accounting for the exceptional defeats of presidents Carter and Bush. Democrats keep reminding themselves, with the air of persons whistling past the graveyard, of the elder Bush, who won the earlier Gulf War, only to fall from neglect of the home front. Their tune does echo resonant weaknesses in the economy, such as the loss of two million jobs under the current Bush, increased unemployment, a depressed stock market, and continuing trade imbalances. The melody, however, may be stifled by renewed economic growth as the business cycle turns up and gas prices go down. Ronald Reagan, remember, survived the severe recession of his first term as the economy boomed just in time for his triumphant re-election in 1984. Aside from the uncertain economy, there is little  reason to doubt a similar Republican victory in the forthcoming election of 2004.

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Assuming this immediate result, the longer-term consequences of the election are still more speculative. The prospects - which, I admit, do not bring me personal joy - are for fundamental changes favoring conservative and Republican causes.

A 2004 victory would consolidate the control of the national government already held by Republicans. A presidential victory would mean that the party had won power in seven of the past ten national elections, an impressive record. Congress is also likely to remain controlled by the party. In the Senate, Democrats hold more of the vulnerable seats under contest in 2004. The House has now elected Republican majorities for five straight elections beginning with the 1994 upheaval, and this streak is likely to continue, as candidates gain the added advantages of Bush at the head of the Republican ticket and heavy financial contributions.

These changes in the elective branches would reflect the slow increase in Republican strength in party loyalties, so that Republican party identifiers now equal the once-dominant Democrats. Not only are there more Republicans in the total electorate, the party's loyalists are also ideologically cohesive, comprising a solid group of self-identified conservatives. They are more likely actually to vote than Democrats or Independents, and they are less likely to defect to opposition candidates.

In the third branch of the national government, the Supreme Court already has a conservative majority, as seen in decisions such as Bush v. Gore. After nine years of stability, retirements and deaths are inevitable. While departing judges are as likely to be conservatives (Rehnquist, O'Connor) as liberals (Stevens, Ginsburg), the replacements nominated by Bush and confirmed by a Republican Senate will surely lean to the right. Threats of a Democratic filibuster may deter the selection of the most provocative conservative candidates (such as Clarence Thomas for Chief Justice or a clone of Robert Bork for Associate Justice). But it would be difficult for Democrats to oppose a woman, an Hispanic (or a sitting Senator like Oren Hatch) who were quiet about their conservatism (as exemplified by current Justices O'Connor and Kennedy).

Holding power throughout the national government, the Bush administration can be expected to write its policy agenda in granite. Despite the clouded results in 2000, Bush has governed as if he had a national mandate. With re-election, he would have the further legitimacy of a popular endorsement. An economic policy that favors the wealthy, already specified in the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, would become still more explicit and permanent. Voters beset by taxes on dividends and estates, the bedrock of Republican financial support, would be relieved of their burdens, while the ensuing budget deficits would necessarily lead to cuts in programs of broader benefit, such as Medicare, conservation of natural resources, education, and possibly social security.  

Still more troubling is the likely extension of restrictions on personal liberty. In the aftermath of 9/11,The USA Patriot Act passed with only limited scrutiny by Democrats, Congress, the media, or the bar. It had one saving grace: the most drastic provisions would expire in 2005. Unfortunately, the threat of terrorism will not fall as predictably as the sun sets. With the endorsement of an electorate rightfully concerned about personal and national security, we are likely to see the Patriot Act's restrictions made permanent and even extended in an administration that already holds hundreds of suspects in jail without trial, defense counsel or explicit evidence. These restrictions will hinder criticism of an emboldened conservative regime.

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The coming Republican dominance of American politics is only a speculative forecast, not a certainty. If it does develop, however, it will not be permanent. American political history repeatedly evidences cycles of change, as the nation moves back and forth around a centrist equilibrium.  Democrats may take some heart in the changing demographics of the nation, which might bring them more Hispanic and African American voters. Liberals such as this author can hope that terrorism, and fears of terrorism, will abate, and that the basic thrust of American's insistent egalitarianism will remedy current injustices.

We may eventually look back on the election of 2004 as we can now look back a century earlier, to 1904. Then, too, an imperial American party won re-election over a weak Democratic opposition. But then, too, the combination of social movements, demographic change, economic inequality, and muckraking journalism led to national revival. Social change brought the progressive leadership of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps the current fogs of war and politics will again dissipate in a clearer and fairer vision.