Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Bush Effect: Polarization, Turnout, and Activism in the 2004 Presidential Election

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Bush Effect: Polarization, Turnout, and Activism in the 2004 Presidential Election

Article excerpt

Americans are closely divided, but we are not deeply divided, and we are closely divided because many of us are ambivalent and uncertain, and consequently reluctant to make firm commitments to parties, politicians, or policies. We divide evenly in elections or sit them out entirely because we instinctively seek the center while the parties and candidates hang out on the extremes. (Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope 2004, ix)

   I'm a uniter, not a divider. I refuse to play the politics of
   putting people into groups and pitting one group against another.

--Candidate George W. Bush, May 6, 1999 (1)

In the 2004 presidential election, Americans were closely divided, but they were not ambivalent or uncertain about George W. Bush. Americans were in tact deeply divided about George Bush, and that division drove more of them to the polls than in any presidential election in American history. Over 122 million Americans voted in 2004, an increase of 17 million over the 2000 presidential election. Turnout jumped from 54 percent of eligible voters in 2000 to 61 percent in 2004--close to the levels seen during the 1950s and 1960s before the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 (McDonald 2004). (2)

It was not only voting that was way up in 2004. According to data from the American National Election Studies (NES), far more Americans engaged in campaign activities beyond voting. Twenty-one percent of Americans displayed a button, bumper sticker, or yard sign during the campaign, matching the all-time high set in 1960. In 2000, despite the closeness of the presidential race, only 10 percent of Americans displayed a button, bumper sticker, or yard sign. Even more impressively, 48 percent of Americans reported that they talked to someone during the 2004 campaign to try to influence their vote. This was by far the highest proportion in the history of the NES and a dramatic increase from the 32 percent who reported engaging in efforts at personal persuasion during the 2000 campaign.

In the remainder of this article, we demonstrate that George W. Bush was the most polarizing presidential candidate in recent political history and that this was the main reason turnout and activism increased dramatically in 2004. Bush was a much more polarizing figure than he had been four years earlier. Americans either loved him or hated him and they went to the polls in record numbers to express those feelings. Voters' feelings about George Bush were strongly related to their basic partisan and ideological orientations. Thus, the increasing polarization of the American electorate contributed to making Bush a divisive figure (Abramowitz and Saunders 1998, 2005; Fleisher and Bond 2001). However, this long-term trend does not explain the dramatic change between 2000 and 2004 in the way the electorate perceived George Bush.

George W. Bush: From Uniter to Divider

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, Americans rallied behind President Bush as they had seldom rallied behind any modern president. Following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, George Bush received approval ratings of between 80 and 90 percent, with solid majorities of Democrats and Independents as well as Republicans expressing support. By the fall of 2004, however, much of that support had dissipated. While the large majority of Republicans continued to express strong support for the president, Bush's approval rating among Democrats was even lower than it had been before the September 11th attacks (Jacobson 2005).

Evaluations of George Bush in 2004 were more divided along party lines than evaluations of any president since the NES began asking the presidential approval question in 1972. However, the highly polarized evaluations of Bush in 2004 represented a continuation of a trend that goes back at least 30 years. The difference between the percentage of Democratic identifiers and leaners approving of the president's job performance and the percentage of Republican identifiers and leaners approving of the president's job performance was 36 points for Richard Nixon in 1972, 42 points for Jimmy Carter in 1980, 52 points for Ronald Reagan in 1988, 55 points for Bill Clinton in 1996, and 71 points for George W. …

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