The months leading up to the 2004 presidential election were filled with commentaries and speculations as to what issues most concerned voters. From a vast array of topics such as health care, employment, social security, taxes, abortion and gay rights, voters at the polls on November 2 proved that what they were most concerned about was safety, thus homeland security and the Iraq war took center stage over all the other societal issues.
Earlier in the year, Vermont Governor Howard Dean's campaign was turning the Iraq war into a potential negative for the Bush-Cheney re-election, however when Kerry pulled ahead of Dean later in the primaries, the pendulum began to swing in favor of the Republicans (Nichols 2004). Why? Because Dean's unconditional opposition to the war "could have been a potent in a face-off with Bush" because one of Dean's strengths was that he separated himself from the Washington pack (Nichols 2004). However, Kerry was very much a part of the Washington scene and had voted in favor of the resolution for war (Nichols 2004). Thus, the GOP had ammunition should Kerry try to attack Bush's stance on the Iraq war.
Kerry's Democratic nomination may well have proven the deciding factor for the 2004 election. For even after
"every imaginable revelation about the missteps, misdeeds and lies that the Bush
administration used to steer the country into the Iraq misadventure, and after all the news about the quagmire it had become,
America effectively said to George W. Bush:
We trust you to manage the mess more than we trust John Kerry" (Nichols 2004)..
And this, says many, may be the most painful reality of the 2004 campaign, for although there was much talk about the war, there was never a true debate concerning the U.S. occupation of Iraq (Nichols 2004). Kerry offered himself as an alternative to Bush, yet he never succeeded in debating the practical questions concerning troop withdrawal and Iraqi independence, but rather offered a "vague sooner-rather-than-later promise that sounded a bit too much like the 'secret plan' to get U.S. troops out of Vietnam that Richard Nixon peddled in 1968" (Nichols 2004). And although it can be argued as to whether Dean would have been a better foe for Bush than Kerry, one thing is certain and that is a Democratic challenger who could distance himself from Bush's plan would have proven to be, as Bob Woodard suggests, "potent in a face-off with Bush" (Nichols 2004). Moreover, even though Bush lost all three debate with Kerry, the results of the election show that he did not lost the "broader debate about the war" (Nichols 2004).
On November 12, 2002, it was reported that according to a USA TODAY-CNN-Gallop Poll, most Americans supported President Bush's position for war against Iraq and of the 1,014 Americans who participated in the telephone survey, 57% said Democrats were not tough enough on terrorism, while 64% said Republicans had a stronger stance against terrorism (Advisory 2002). This poll also showed that most Americans believe the Republicans had a more solid plan for managing the economy and foreign affairs (Advisory 2002). These findings suggested that public support for Bush's leadership and the perception that the Democrats' lacked an economic plan factored in the election sweep in which the GOP gained control of Congress in 2002 (Advisory 2002). And due to the GOP sweep in the presidential election, Americans did not veer from these beliefs and perceptions.
Thomas Fitzgerald in a September 5, 2004 article for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service wrote that Kerry's personality hurt him a lot, in fact, several political analysts believed that "likability" was perhaps Kerry's greatest challenge (Fitzgerald 2004). Even though virtually every poll showed that a solid majority disapproved of Bush's handling of the Iraq war and the economy, and believed that the country was headed in the wrong direction, voters simply didn't like Kerry very much (Fitzgerald 2004). A Zogby/Williams Identity Poll from August 2004 found that 57.3% of undecided or persuadable voters would rather have a beer with Bush than Kerry, and that 67% of undecided voters liked Bush and 52% disliked Kerry (Fitzgerald 2004). According to a more whimsical poll taken in late August 2004 for the American Kennel Club, more people trusted Bush more than Kerry to walk their dogs, 51% to 37% (Fitzgerald 2004).
Although such indicators may appear to be irrelevant compared to war and peace, they do nonetheless provide vital clues to voter behavior because "people choose a person as much as an agenda when they vote for a president' (Fitzgerald 2004). According to Sherry Bebich Jeffe, a professor of political communication at the University of Southern California, "People seem to feel more comfortable with Bush," and Kerry is "diffident with people and ponderous on the stump" (Fitzgerald 2004). Richard Koehler, a 67-year-old farmer in Ohio, says that despite his concerns about Iraq, "I'd get along much better with Bush ... He's more my style ... He's the kind of guy I could have a Coke with ... Kerry seems to me to be like an Eastern snob" (Fitzgerald 2004). Another voter expressed that she'd enjoy talking baseball with Bush, while another felt that Kerry came across a fake and spoke in cliches and that although Bush often mispronounced words, she felt he came across as more human than Kerry, who reminded her of a robot (Fitzgerald 2004). Betty Glad, professor of political psychology at the University of South Carolina says that for many undecided voters, the contrasts between the two candidates concerning the Iraq war is not that sharp, however, "if there's a clear issue and people know where the candidates stand, then likability is less important" (Fitzgerald 2004). Therefore when the issues are less contrast, voters often rely on personality in choosing a candidate (Fitzgerald 2004).
On November 3, 2004, James Pinkerton of Newsday wrote that Bush was always the logical favorite to win re-election regardless of how the polls bounced back and forth, because never in the history of America have voters defeated a war president, and "so Bush, self-declared 'war president' joins the company of James Madison in 1812, Abraham Lincoln in 1864, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 and Richard Nixon in 1972" (Pinkerton 2004). Voters, says Pinkerton, have a natural bias toward re-electing the man that they have already elected, ten of the fourteen elected presidents since 1900, including now Bush, have been returned to office because the argument 'Give the president four more years to finish the job' make intuitive sense to voters (Pinkerton 2004). Moreover, the last Northern Democrat to win the White House was John F. Kennedy in 1960, and since then, "not only has liberalism gone out of fashion, but the population has shifted Sunbelt-ward ... In the 11 elections since 1960, the Democrats have won only when they ran Southerners" (Pinkerton 2004).
For most voters, the election came down to one key question: "Who can best protect my family and me" (Pop 2004). Retired teacher, Gregory Brewington of Asbury Park, says that "In the world today, we need someone who is steadfast in the war on terrorism, not someone who is going to vacillate ... In these perilous times, President Bush projects the right image" (Pop 2004). Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said that "People use to look at politics the way they looked at Olympic volleyball -- mildly interesting every four years ... But 9/11 made us believe that our behavior on Election Day can affect us any time, and when we least expect it" (Pop 2004).
In an October 30, 2004 article for Newsday, Ken Fireman said that during the last days of the campaign, Bush returned to the theme that has…