Looking Back and Pausing Before Looking Ahead

Posted December 10, 2004 at 12:43pm

What was the pundit community’s biggest mistake of 2004? Was it assuming that undecided voters would opt for the challenger in the presidential race, or the post-election hogwash about “values” being the top issue in the November election?

It’s hard to say. Both of them were way off base. [IMGCAP(1)]

Yes, in the mid-1990s, during a period of anti-incumbency, challengers did win virtually all late-deciding voters. But in the middle of a war against terror, there was no way of knowing whether or not late deciders would move en masse toward Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). In the end, they didn’t.

Culture, whether you call it values, religion or moral issues, was important this year. But as a number of observers have recently (and wisely) pointed out, it wasn’t the decisive issue of the election. The war against terror — and its associated event, the war in Iraq — was.

Fortunately, I didn’t get sucked into either of those goofs. But I did make my share of blunders.

Many analysts and observers, including myself, missed the GOP’s efforts to turn out new voters. Instead, we all focused on Democratic efforts to do the same. While Rock the Vote and MoveOn.org sent out press releases, the Republicans simply worked on motivating and mobilizing their base. I, for one, was skeptical about all that talk that there were plenty of potential Bush voters who stayed home four years ago but would turn out in droves this time. I was dead wrong.

And then there was the widely held assumption, at least during the first half of 2004, that President Bush was likely to lose more of his 2000 voters to Kerry than he was to gain voters who supported Al Gore in 2000.

I encountered plenty of 2000 Bush voters who swore they couldn’t vote for him again, but only one Gore voter who planned to go for the president this time. Many reporters I talked to arrived at the same conclusion. In the end, though, polling showed that more Democrats defected to Bush than Republicans to Kerry.

What was the most over-hyped story of the year, politically?

Was it the Democratic Convention with all those generals on stage in Boston? Or the impact of “Fahrenheit 9/11” on the election? Or high gas prices?

I’m casting my vote for the hype surrounding Kerry’s VP pick.

Yes, if the Massachusetts Senator had convinced Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to be his running mate, all of the attention to the selection would have been legitimate (and the selection itself would have been a big deal). But as things turned out, the choice of Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) wasn’t very consequential at all. Kerry wasn’t going to win the White House because of his running mate, and he didn’t lose it because of Edwards. Remember that four years from now, when the same people who hyped the importance of Kerry’s VP pick do so again.

What did we all learn about presidential politics this year?

We learned that Democrats can raise money — in fact, more money than Republicans.

And we learned that all of the day-to-day details of a presidential race make interesting fodder for political reporters, columnists, pundits and TV bookers, but they don’t have much of an impact on who wins or who loses.

All of that dissecting of the race back in 2003 didn’t tell us who would win the Iowa caucuses, did it? John Kerry looked absolutely, positively dead, politically, in the fall of 2003, yet was nominated. And all the courtship of organized labor by Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) turned out to be really important, didn’t it?

We also learned that the exit polls didn’t do badly. What? Have I lost my mind?

Actually, the problem wasn’t the exits — it was the folks who treated the early-afternoon numbers as if they were a predictor of what would happen after everyone had voted.

The exit poll was off by a couple of points, but that’s well within the margin of error. Given conservatives’ apparently increased skittishness about talking to pollsters and members of the national media, a small bias in the results toward Kerry is understandable.

We also learned that there are a lot of black-helicopter theorists on both sides of the aisle. Too many conservatives immediately after the election thought the difference between the exit poll and the actual result reflected some sort of media conspiracy to elect Kerry. But we already knew those guys were out there.

But this year also brought the emergence — in considerable numbers, if my e-mails are to be believed — of people on the left who believe that the exit poll results prove that Kerry won and that the actual results prove fraud by the Republicans. Those guys are scary.

When all is said and done, I’m not sure what my biggest mistake of 2004 was. In the fall of 2003, I wrote that then-candidate Howard Dean had an 80 percent chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination. He didn’t. But, since I made the prediction in 2003 about 2004, was that an ’03 or an ’04 blunder?

Anyway, what about 2008? Who’s going to win? Heck, I don’t know. And until Jan. 1, 2005, I’ve decided not to care.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.