Why Kerry Lost and Where We Go from Here

Article excerpt

For many social workers, the defeat of John Kerry in the November 2004 presidential election came as a bitter disappointment. NASW endorsed Kerry and Edwards, and social workers played an active role in their campaign (Fred, 2005; http://www.socialworkersforkerryedwards.org/index.html). Until the very end, a Kerry victory seemed possible. The campaign and its supporters engaged in a massive organizing effort, resulting in increased turnout among Democrats (Danner, 2005). Final polls showed the race tightening and pointed to a Kerry victory (http:// www.emergingdemocraticmajorityweblog.com/ donkeyrising/archives/000919.php).

Kerry's defeat has placed conservatives in a position to block efforts for progressive reform and dismantle New Deal and Great Society legislation social workers have long supported. This does not bode well for our profession.

Yet, we should not exaggerate the extent of Kerry's defeat. President Bush's victory in the popular vote was relatively narrow, 50.73 percent versus 48.27 percent, or slightly more than 3 million votes (http://elections.gmu.edu/voter_turnout.htm). This election was not like those of 1972 and 1984, when Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan won landslide victories. George Bush won by a narrower margin than any Republican president re-elected in the past century; in contrast, Bill Clinton, in 1996, had a margin of victory of 8.5 percent (Danner, 2005).

The president also failed to do as well as expected. Alan Abramowitz (2004b), a political scientist at Emory University, has developed a "time-for-change" model, which has successfully predicted presidential elections since 1988. Based on this model, which incorporates a president's standing in the Gallup poll in June of the election year, economic growth during the first half of that year, and the length of time the president's party has been in the White House, the president should have won 53.7 percent of the "major party vote." In reality, he won only 51.4 percent. Abramowitz's findings are consistent with those of four other academic models, which predicted the president would win 53.8 percent or more of the vote (http://www.apsanet. org/ps/oct04/toc.cfm).

This column examines the reasons for the president's narrow victory and considers its implications for social workers. It concludes with a discussion of three issues social workers and other progressives can organize around.


In the aftermath of the election, many observers argued that moral values were the driving force in the president's re-election. This conclusion derived from exit polling by the National Election Pool (NEP), in which respondents were asked to identify the "most important" issue in determining their vote. Twenty-two percent chose "moral values," more than "economy/jobs" (20 percent) or terrorism (19 percent) (http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2004/pages/results/states/US/P/00/ epolls.0.html).

In hindsight, the significance of these findings was exaggerated. First, the results of the NEP poll were questionable, because as late as 8 P.M. on election night, they showed Senator Kerry with a strong lead, which, of course, did not hold up (Menand, 2004). Second, as Jan Van Lohuizen, a "leading" Republican pollster noted, a poll in which "the highest number is twenty-two ... means there is no consensus.... no one issue that drove the election'" (cited in Menand, p. 58). Third, the question itself was problematic. Voters had to choose from a list of predetermined categories, which, according to Van Lohuizen, included "a lot more places for a Kerry voter to park himself [sic] than for a Bush voter to park himself" (cited in Menand, p. 58).

A postelection poll by the Pew Research Center revealed the limits of this type of "closed" question. In this poll, half the participants chose from a "fixed" list of categories, as in the NEP poll; the other half put "in their own words" the issues that most influenced their vote (http://people-press. …