The 2004 election was one of the closest and most bitterly fought in recent years. Though George W. Bush won by the smallest margin for an incumbent since Woodrow Wilson, he nonetheless went from a 543,000-vote deficit in 2000 to a winning margin of just over 3,000,000 votes in 2004. What accounts for this small but significant shift in electoral support for Bush? In this article, I argue that contrary to much speculation at the time, social and moral issues played only a small role and that foreign-policy issues were central to the outcome of the election largely because of significant partisan polarization on the issue of Iraq. This partisan polarization, though extremely high compared to previous wars, is not, however, the result of strikingly different attitudes between Democrats and Republicans toward foreign policy, but rather the result of polarized attitudes toward George W. Bush.
Soon after the election, many commentators claimed that Bush's victory resulted from a massive increase in turnout by culturally conservative voters and especially white evangelical Christians. In particular, many speculated that the presence of anti-gay marriage referendums in eleven states spurred religious conservatives to the polls.
Much of this speculation was based upon the results of the National Election Pool (NEP) exit poll showing that 22 percent of voters cited "moral values" as the most important issue in the election, more than the economy and jobs (20 percent), terrorism (19 percent), or Iraq (15 percent). Others pointed out that the percentage of evangelical Christians in the electorate jumped from 14 percent to 23 percent. But both of these findings were extremely problematic. For example, as experts quickly noted, the category of "moral values" is extremely vague and might have artificially inflated the number of people choosing it over a more specific issue. (1) In addition, the presumed jump in the evangelical vote was due largely to a change in question wording. In 2000, the exit poll asked whether respondents considered themselves "part of the conservative Christian political movement, also known as the religious right." In 2004, however, the NEP asked, "Would you describe yourself as a born again or evangelical Christian?" The latter question is clearly much more inclusive and less politically charged, and thus the likely reason for the larger percentage of voters who chose it in 2004.
The actual evidence of a surge in support for Bush by evangelicals or around socially conservative issues was rather thin. For example, Bush did not, as first speculated, run any better in states with anti-gay marriage referenda on the ballot. Political scientist Alan Abramowitz found that Bush's vote increased by 2.6 percentage points in states with gay marriage ballot measures, lower than the 2.9 percent in states without such measures. (2) In addition, Bush's vote among churchgoers changed very little from 2000 to 2004. Among those who attended church weekly or more, Bush's support went from 59 to 61 percent, but this slight increase was offset by a drop in these voters from 42 to 41 percent of the electorate.
The 2004 National Election Study (NES) survey provides a fuller picture of the 2004 vote. The NES does not include a specific question about evangelical status, but it has for many years asked several questions about the nature of respondents' religious beliefs, including how important religion is in their life and whether or not they believe that the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally (probably a close proxy for evangelical status). To measure the impact that these groups had on the Bush vote in 2004 versus 2000, I calculated the Republican performance for whites in both groups. Performance is defined as a group's percent of the electorate multiplied by its level of support for a candidate. For example, if a particular group made up 50 percent of the electorate and gave a candidate 60 percent of its vote, that group's performance would be 30 percent (. …