The number one motivating factor for voters was "moral issues." Translated: abortion and gay marriage. Abortion has brought people to the polls. We saw a record turn-out last night. Normally this is good news for the Democrats. But the turn-out was people angry enough to primarily cast their votes in an effort to keep Adam from marrying Steve - something like 80% of people who cited moral issues voted for Bush. I think this was probably the difference in Ohio and Florida - and thus the election. Anti-gay initiatives and state constitutional amendments won handily.
I wrote in an emailed reply (here slightly edited):
I'd like to know more about why you think this. It sounds plausible, especially if we look at this from Andrew Sullivan's perspective. For Sullivan, the FMA and related issues have weighed heavily in his considerations, and he's been quite vocal about those issues in cyberspace and elsewhere. While I disagree with Keith Burgess-Jackson that Sullivan defines himself solely according to his homosexuality (a stupid smear), the sheer amount of space Sullivan has devoted to gay-related issues makes it clear that these issues are close to his heart. Sullivan knew that his agitation about gay issues might provoke a backlash, and it's possible that that's what we saw on Election Day.
Question: are there other pundits making the same claim as you-- i.e., that what got the GOP voters out to the polls was "morality" issues? I ask because my own take is that (as many of us have speculated over the past year) the central issue was national security/the war on terror. This was my own reason for leaning ever-so-slightly Bushward many months ago on my blog: I saw the two main concerns as security/terror and the economy, each weighed against the other (and quite likely forming a false dichotomy: as my dad pointed out, the two concerns are interrelated).
I think you're right that this election is a disaster for the Democrats, but I also think that the Dems are going to hammer Bush as hard as the Republicans hammered Clinton in his second term. The Dems now have four years to catch a major Bush stumble and enlarge it into something impeachable. The war itself might prove to be grounds for this.
[I suppose you could argue that the Dems, who aren't the majority in Congress, won't be able to do as much damage to Bush as the GOP-dominated Congress did to Clinton. I'll concede that for the sake of argument, but in reality I have my doubts: there are other ways to drive GOPers nuts.]
I do think, however, that if Bush continues in the same vein in his second term, he's going to (1) lose even more diplomatic capital on the world scene (and he's not going to have Colin Powell around this term, is he?), and (2) he's going to spend the country into even deeper debt. Soon, we won't be negotiating from a position of economic strength (something China and bin Laden will be watching).
(1) and (2) will, in my opinion, generate-- or maybe I should say focus-- a huge groundswell of resentment against the Repubs, who continue to dominate all three branches of government. I'm convinced this is going to produce a backlash in four years. (I base this more on the American desire for variety than on astute political analysis.) I don't know enough history to argue that such oscillations occur regularly in the political realm, but I suspect they do.
Back to Sullivan for a second. Sullivan was probably too optimistic in how he read the American public. He felt we were Ready For A Change. Alas, not so. Not yet. That much was proven on Election Day. But I think Sullivan's been right to track public opinion as a trend-- i.e., as time goes by, more and more of the public will be tolerant of issues that scandalized people in the past. Sullivan rightly notes that many young Republicans these days don't think twice about gay marriage. I think this trend will continue, but it hasn't yet reached a political saturation point. Maybe it will in another presidential term or two, as the younger sisters and brothers of today's 20- and 30-something gay folks become old enough to have political opinions and vote. This will help fuel a lib/Dem backlash.
The question for liberals, though, has always been one of coherence, I think. A "big tent" party attracts all types, and it's bad when the wrong types end up at the steering wheel. The same could be said for Repubs, when the religious right has too much say in politics, but I think the problem's a lot worse for Democrats, especially if they're trying to fight a focused battle, with a focused message. (By contrast, the GOP is scarily organized and efficient about getting people "on message.")
This time around, I wasn't partial to liberal/Democrat arguments that were insulting or dismissive of conservatives/Republicans. I did, however, like some of the more intelligent ripostes to the charge that Kerry is a flip-flopper: some enterprising Dems took the time to track Bush's own flip-flops as president (I think Richard of Peking Duck links to one such post). That's the kind of strategy that needed to be multiplied a thousand times and drilled into the public consciousness. As it was, the riposte wasn't forceful enough.
[It also goes without saying that Kerry didn't do much to tout his own presidential virtues, about which I'm still largely ignorant at this late date.]
Liberal/Democrat disorganization is, to my mind, the only factor that will trip up the Dems in 2008. They tried hard this time around, but still weren't organized enough. By 2008, Bush and the GOP will have become a cause celebre for the Dems, and I suspect that efforts to unseat the GOP in 2008 will be (1) more focused and (2) aided by a resentful public that will have had enough of GOP meddling in private morality, GOP deficit spending, and GOP squandering of diplomatic capital. By 2008 the gay lobby will have gotten stronger, and another batch of open-minded young people will be ready to vote. Although quite a few young people these days are voting conservative, they're often socially liberal. I expect that liberalism to grow.
So anyway, that's my over-long justification for believing there'll be a major change in 2008. Your points are well-taken, but I'd like to know more about why you think the "morality" issues were such a crucial motivating factor in this election. While I'd agree they're high on people's list of priorities, I tend to think that national defense is even higher on the list, and that this was the deciding factor for 2004.
I haven't seen any talking head or commentary that backs up my observation. My observation was solely based on:
1) Huge turnout favors Bush, not Kerry
2) 18% of Black vote in some states went to Bush, supposedly due to gay marriage
3)Surge in turnout in states with gay marriage issues on ballot
4) We did not see the surge from abortion last time
5) The #1 concern of voters was "moral issues" and 80% of people who cited moral issues voted for Bush. This was a surprise because, as you noted, most people thought security would be #1.
6) Voters who cited other issues went slightly for Kerry
Mike [the Maximum Leader] cautions against reading too much into the exit polls. I hope I'm wrong.
Perhaps the exit polls, like the pre-election polls, actually underreport people voting to perpetuate discrimination, because most people are unlikely to just say "I hate fags."
If social conservatism is a driving force, it doesn't matter who the Dems put up.
He also provides a link to an essay by Bill Bennett on the return of virtuous society. A snippet from the essay:
Well, it wasn't the Clinton economy we longed for; and it wasn't just the war on terrorism that occupied us. Ethics and moral values were ascendant last night — on voters minds, in Americans' hearts. To be sure, every anthropologist loves his own tribe, and I have long advocated a stronger tie between politics and the virtues. Last night it was evident that the American people agree.
Ohio, which may very well have lost more jobs than any other state, delivered President Bush his electoral victory. West Virginia looks much the same. Alaska, a relatively libertarian state, voted against decriminalizing marijuana — despite the proposition to do so vastly out-funding the movement to keep it criminalized. And the eleven state proposals to ban the redefinition of marriage all succeeded overwhelmingly.
On this last point, one veteran political reporter told me, "I heard again and again from people connected to, and members of, black churches who did not look kindly on gay marriage, and were very motivated against it. They, more than anyone else, did not see it as a civil right — and were angered by those who claimed it was."
This is disturbing on several levels. The most disturbing aspect of Bennett's essay is that it appears to be an admission that it wasn't so much the war on terror that drove people into the arms of the GOP: it was private morality. If Smallholder's right, and he might very well be, then I've totally misread the American public. I'm willing to grant it's a possibility, albeit a disappointing one. If true, this means the GOP has been disingenuous: the primary rhetoric during the campaign was that Bush is a better wartime leader than Kerry can ever be. Not only that, but it's the GOP that's been mocking gay rights activists for their fixation on homosexuality issues during wartime. I don't trust Bill Bennett's argument any more than I trust Bennett himself-- he's a compulsive gambler, mind-- to preach about virtues. I'd much rather read Dr. Vallicella, with whom I might disagree on metaphysical grounds but who seems to practice what he preaches far more consistently than Bennett and his self-important ilk.
Despite Smallholder's strong argument, I still maintain that we're going to see a Dem backlash in 2008. If it's spearheaded by the likes of Hillary Clinton, it'll fail. But with someone else leading the charge, it'll probably succeed in breaking the GOP's grip on all three branches of government.