TCS Daily

Analyze This

By Collin Levey - November 4, 2004 12:00 AM

John Kenneth Galbraith once said that "the enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events." If only the ultraliberal economist could have foreseen how appropriate his words would be to the bedraggled Democrats in this week after the 2004 election. In this intensely analyzed campaign, nearly all the "common knowledge" was dead wrong.

Consider the barely suppressed glee early Tuesday as media outlets reported lines around the block at polling places and record turnout in key swing states -- as high as 75% of registered voters in Ohio. Kerry supporters were dancing a jig: People don't usually wait in line for hours to vote for the incumbent, said conventional wisdom. Highly motivated voters are almost always looking for change.

And the conventional wisdom bandwagon barreled on. Historically, "undecideds" break for the challenger, sages intoned. The group Media Matters for America advised that in three of the last four elections in which an incumbent faced the voters, his vote tally either fell short of or merely matched his final poll number." Well, yes, but the two who fell short were Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, suggesting a different rule: Polling exaggerates support for Democrats and underestimates support for Republicans.

This election was going to be another hairsplitter, went the mantra. It wasn't. George Bush won the ballyhooed popular vote by more than 3 million, a bigger margin than almost anyone expected and the highest percentage of the vote since Ronald Reagan's reelection. Harpies of the 2000 race are now effectively shushed by the "mandate" they have said Bush previously lacked.

Democrats could afford to ignore the South, everyone said, and the youth, charisma and enthusiasm of John Edwards would make up for the fact that he had no states to deliver in a tough electoral battle. He could help deliver voters who like his sunny style.

Young voters were supposed turn out in droves to produce a Kerry victory. Sorry, Boss, and P-Diddy, they didn't, cementing their reputations as no-shows -- again. Not even Kerry's last-minute attempt to raise the specter of a military draft managed to move them off the dime. Young voters came out in almost precisely the same percentages they did in 1992, 1996 and 2000. Nor for that matter did minorities behave as obediently as expected: Hispanics voted more heavily for Bush than last time and the president's black support ticked up notably in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin.

In fact, turnout truisms badly need to be rewritten in the wake of this election. More voters were always supposed to be better for Democrats. The idea is that "marginal" voters are typically the poor, disaffected and disenfranchised, and thus part of the Democratic Party's natural constituency. But it didn't turn out that way. Turnout was high -- and it helped the GOP. Mr. Bush even got 20,000 more votes in Florida's Palm Beach county than he did last time around.

For that matter, many still clung to the notion that the debates would be a key turning point for Senator Kerry. Gazing again at history, pundits neglected that when judging a wartime incumbent president, what he says, or garbles, matters less than whether you like what you have seen him do.

Maybe part of the problem was too many pundits and professionals looking at voters as "blocs" whose hot buttons had to be pushed rather than as thinking men and women who had to be persuaded. Bush could at least tell them where he wanted to go, whereas Kerry mainly exhibited a talent for criticism. That came through even though the accepted line that "negative campaigning" suppresses democracy was a canard too.

Maybe it was also the media's hunger for drama on the 2000 model. Witness CNN's exciting new innovation of the "green state" and its insistence through yesterday morning that Ohio was "too close to call." In fact, an important question for future thumbsucking is how of much role media favoritism might have played in allowing Kerry to keep the race as close as he did. One such piece of desperation punditry was the suggestion, offered in complete seriousness in some quarters, that he was sure to benefit from a Red Sox "coattails" effect.

But there is one item of conventional wisdom that still holds true. If you want to elect a Democrat to the presidency, the last place to look is to a liberal senator from Massachusetts.

The author is a columnist with the New York Post.


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