In July, Split Ticket started a new historical analysis series designed to explain how certain past presidential elections ushered in, or contributed to, realignments of geographic and demographic natures. Our first article touched on the 2000 Presidential Election, a contest now regarded as one of the most consequential, and controversial, in American history. Broadly, Split Ticket concluded that different swings recorded between the ‘96 and ‘00 cycles foreshadowed ongoing regional realignments that would eventually manifest themselves in the form of modern-day coalitions.
The latest edition of this series examines some of the fascinating returns from the 2004 Presidential Election, a competitive, yet inconspicuous, race that saw incumbent George W. Bush secure a clear electoral mandate following his disputed victory four years before. His opponent, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, tried to establish unique electoral appeal, but ultimately struggled to disconnect from the Democratic Party’s liberal wing. In loss, Kerry was generally stymied by the ongoing realignment that had begun to affect many parts of the traditional Democratic coalition since 2000.
But Bush’s reelection was never taken for granted. Polling throughout the summer and into the early fall showed an evenly-divided contest. Though 2004 remains the last time that a Republican presidential nominee has won the popular vote, the returns themselves were somewhat up in the air at the time. Had Ohio, the tipping-point state, voted Democratic, Bush would have actually lost reelection. While Democrats were certainly disappointed with Kerry’s loss at the time, most now recognize that it was a necessary precursor to successful rise of Barack Obama himself.
Before engaging in a specific regional breakdown, it is beneficial to examine the 2004 coalition in the broadest sense. While winning the Electoral College 286-251, President Bush carried 31 states. Kerry, meanwhile, took 19 along with the District of Columbia. Though the deciding margins in all of the swing states were particularly-narrow, the results broke down on clear geographic lines. Republicans won the South, Lower Midwest, Plains, Mountain West, and Southwestern regions. Democrats secured New England, the Northeast, the Upper Midwest, and the Pacific Coast. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the returns was the fact that a significant number of reliably-Democratic states, like Hawaii and California, only backed Kerry by single-digit margins.
In the South, every state except North Carolina swung rightward between 2000 and 2004. This was largely a result of the inroads that Republicans had made with rural, ancestrally-Democratic whites. These voters supported Kerry to a lesser degree than they had Gore, though few modern Democrats would reach or exceed Massachusetts Senator’s floor.
That residual appeal to voters of Democratic heritage allowed Kerry to keep Arkansas and Missouri competitive. At the same time, then-solidified Republican suburban support kept states like Georgia in the GOP fold.
Two counties that were representative of the realignment among rural whites were Foard (TX) and Telfair (GA). From the time of their foundings until the end of the 20th century, both backed Democratic presidential nominees on all but a few occasions. Telfair, for instance, only backed Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. Foard, meanwhile, opted for Nixon over Senator George McGovern in 1972 because the South Dakotan was considered too progressive.
Gore carried Telfair by around 2 points in 2000, marking a sharp decrease from President Bill Clinton’s double-digit wins in the county. The shift accelerated in 2004, with Bush beating Kerry 15 points. Republicans hovered at 58% of the vote until the Trump-era, when white crossover support in this part of Georgia dried up for good. Because of its inelastic black population, Democrats have probably reached their floor in Telfair.
The story was much the same in Foard, where Bush’s modest 4 point victory in 2000 ballooned into a 19 point blowout four years later. In the 24 years since Clinton’s reelection, the countywide Democratic vote share has precipitously fallen from 62% to a paltry 18%.
Another interesting county case study was that of Overton (TN). Tennessee, the home state which Gore had competitively lost in 2000, voted to reelect Bush by an even-larger margin. But pro-Republican trends in otherwise-Democratic counties were still visible under the hood. For example, the Democratic margins in Overton fell from 40 to 19 points between 2000 and 2004. Obama would win the county by less than a point in 2008 before losing it in his reelection.
The final section of the South worthy of note is the Missouri Bootheel, which, along with the Lead Belt, has moved away from its historically-Democratic tendencies. Both New Madrid and Pemiscot counties were Gore-Bush and neither has been remotely-contested at the presidential level in the last decade.
Like in the South, Democratic fortunes in coal-rich Appalachia have waned since the 21st century’s first two presidential elections. Of the four states (KY, WV, OH, PA) encompassing all, or part, of the Appalachian turf discussed in this article, three fell into the Clinton-Bush category. In the cases of Kentucky and West Virginia, Republicans would never lose them at the presidential level again.
Two counties in Kentucky, Elliott and Harlan, shed light on counteracting forces that were present during the 2004 campaign. The first, Elliott, did not vote Republican for President until the Trump-era in 2016. While the county itself did trend rightward from 2000 onward, it actually temporarily *swung* toward Democrats in 2004. Kerry’s 40-point margin would be the last high watermark for his party there.
Just to the south, in Harlan, a large pro-Republican shift occurred. The county had originally been partial to Republicans, the Union’s party in the 19th century, but opened up to Democrats during Roosevelt’s New Deal-era. Decades of such national investment on behalf of the Democratic Congress endeared most of Harlan’s voters to the party for most of the 20th century. That ended in 2004, when Bush carried the county by 21 points.
Perhaps the most prominent counties used in Appalachian political analysis are Wyoming (WV) and Greene (PA). Like their Kentucky counterparts, both of these counties had been Democratic since Roosevelt’s rise, but opted for Republicans from 2004 onward. Collectively, they signaled that West Virginia’s 3rd congressional district and southwestern Pennsylvania’s Monongahela Valley were moving firmly in a new political direction after decades of consistency.
Although Joe Biden would dominate the western United States in 2020, the picture in 2004 was extremely different, and in many places out west, this election remains the high-water mark for Republicans in this century.
Bush continued the tradition of strong Republican showings in Arizona, a ruby-red state that Democrats had only flipped once presidentially since 1948 (done by Bill Clinton in 1996), and Nevada, a state that had backed Republicans in every presidential election between 1968 and 1988. But of far more interest were his performances in Texas, New Mexico, the Pacific Coast, and Hawaii.
Among the demographics that Bush had gained the most with between 2000 and 2004 were Hispanic voters. In particular, exit polling suggested that the former Texas Governor got a stunning 49% of the Latino vote in his home state, fueling his 23-point statewide victory. This was evident in Bush’s flip of Cameron County, an urban Hispanic county in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley bordering Mexico – Cameron had backed Gore by 9 and would later hand Barack Obama a 25-point victory in 2008, making the incumbent president’s victory here all the more impressive. This very strength helped him flip New Mexico as well, where exit polling showed him winning a shocking 44% of Hispanics in the state, which was a full 12% higher than his 2000 vote share with New Mexico Hispanics.
His disproportionate strength among Hispanics may be part of the reason that Bush gained in California despite losing ground in the whiter West Coast states. While Kerry continued on Al Gore’s gains in the Portland and Seattle metro areas, which enabled him to expand on the latter’s margins in Washington and Oregon, his was the first (and, to date, only) Democratic presidential campaign to win California by less than 10 points since Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Kerry’s weak margin in California came as a result of his cratering in Southern California, with Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Diego swinging strongly to the right, which offset the Bay Area’s continuing leftward swing. Bush’s national strength with Hispanics may offer an explanation for this, and both New York Times estimates and statistics cited by the LA Times suggest that his gains with Latino voters in the state were especially large – Bush netted 31% of the Latino vote in California in 2004, which was a sharp spike up from his 23% in 2000. But his gains were not limited to this alone; the incumbent’s strength with whites in traditionally Republican areas like Orange very likely fueled his surprisingly strong showing. Neither Bush nor Kerry paid any attention to California in this election, but it voted less than three points to the left of Washington, which was widely considered to be a swing state and the focus of significant targeting.
If California served as a surprise, however, it was nothing compared to the shock that Democrats experienced in their stronghold of Hawaii. Neither campaign paid much attention to this state at the beginning, but when polls began to show an unexpectedly close race, Vice President Dick Cheney made a campaign stop in Hawaii, and the final polling average from RealClearPolitics actually had Republicans in the lead. Ultimately, while the state’s Democratic lean was far too strong to overcome, Kerry still only won by a relatively paltry margin of 8.7%, with Bush’s exceptional urban strength manifesting once again in a shockingly close three point margin in the Democratic stronghold of Honolulu. To date, this remains the weakest statewide performance by any Democratic presidential candidate in the state since 1984.
This remains the only post-1988 election in which a Republican won a plurality of the presidential vote, let alone an outright majority, and while it may seem bizarre if viewed under the lens of modern coalitions, there are some lessons that this election can teach us. Most of the conversation in politics focuses on winning certain areas, but one of the biggest under-discussed factors is really how little a candidate can lose by. By slicing Kerry’s margins among traditionally Democratic demographics, Bush was able to flip New Mexico and keep California and Hawaii much closer than anyone thought possible, which helped fuel his national popular vote victory. If Democrats were to lose working-class Pennsylvania counties like Luzerne by 5 instead of 15, their path to victory would be significantly easier. Similarly, if Republicans can continue to lose Houston by 15 instead of 25, the path for a statewide Democratic victory in Texas becomes much, much narrower and far more difficult.
This election also serves as an instructive reminder in some ways that trends in politics are not permanent and can be broken or reversed. For all of Bush’s strength with urban and Hispanic voters, it’s worth noting that both demographics rebounded strongly towards Barack Obama in 2008, and no Republican since then has come close to matching Bush’s performance with minorities. Elections suffer from the age-old issue of small sample sizes, and the gap between them serves as a massive vacuum in which takes are tossed about with abandon, over-extrapolating from the most recent datapoint. But people are fickle, and coalitions are as well.
2004 was supposed to be a harbinger of increased Republican strength going forward, and there was talk throughout the early Bush years of a permanent Republican majority, but it was all wiped out in the short span of four years. Politics, at the end of the day, still mirrors the people, and this fundamentally means that free and fair elections are still more likely than not to remain volatile over the long run, as coalitions form and break with the whims of the voters involved. The more things change, the more they stay the same.