THE MAIN LINE that the media took away from Bush's post-election press conference was, "It was a thumpin'." It was plastered on the front pages, played repeatedly in sound bytes that led the evening news, and mulled over by the pundits until their faces turned blue. However, if you read the whole transcript, it's evident that Bush qualified his statement with an oft-ignored remark: "Look, this was a close election. If you look at race by race, it was close. The cumulative effect, however, was not too close." Bush even corrected (and poked a bit of fun at) a New York Times reporter to make sure he understood the full context of his characterization. This leaves one to wonder, is Bush just saving face, trying to spin the outcome in a last-ditch effort to rescue his party from its apparent desperate state?
The answer is a resounding "No," and for several reasons.
A numbers game. Numerically speaking, when you look at the nuts bolts of the election results, Bush's statement is accurate: a total of 22 House and Senate races had margins of victory within two percentage points, of which Republicans won a majority. Only seven races in 2002 and 2004 were this close. Less than 5,000 votes made the difference in 19 races, of which Republicans won 13 and lost 6. 78,663 total votes (roughly 12 percent of one voting district) swung the House in the Democrats' favor. Despite this rosy snapshot, the overall picture reveals that Republicans did take a beating; with fewer seats to defend in the Senate, the Republicans still lost 6 seats and, as of now, 29 seats in the House.
History repeats itself. At a Monitor breakfast last week, Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean described the election results as a "huge earthquake," and not just a sixth year itch. When examined from a historical perspective, the results just aren't that surprising or out of the ordinary. The typical 6th year midterm sees a significant loss for the party of the president, as does a wartime midterm. In the 20th century, the president's party lost an average of 28 House seats and 5 Senate seats in a 6th year midterm. In wartime midterms going back to Abraham Lincoln, the average is 32 House seats and 5 Senate seats. Combine the two (sixth-year midterm during wartime), and in 1950, Democrats lost 29 House seats and 5 Senate seats, and in 1918, they lost 19 House seats and 6 Senate seats. So, a loss of 29 House seats and 6 Senate seats isn't a catastrophic anomaly in these circumstances. Some point out that gerrymandering should have given Republicans an advantage this time around, but other situations (Mark Foley, the "culture of corruption" and Jack Abramoff, Katrina, etc) probably negated any edge.
Diverse Republicans. This election season saw the most minority candidates ever running in Senate and gubernatorial races--and several of them were Republicans. Even though Lynn Swann and Ken Blackwell were both defeated handily, Michael Steele was credited with running a very effective campaign, and all three races received major mainstream press. One Washington Post headline read, "The Year of the Black Republican?" Howard Dean commented on this phenomenon, saying that the party "paid a big price" for missing out of the African-American vote and needed to make sure that they didn't have the "Steele problem" in future races. He noted later on that Democrats would lose if they didn't have diversity "on the ticket," because, unlike Republicans, "we are the diversity party."
Rove and Mehlman's GOTV strategy. In the midst of President Bush's lackluster popularity numbers and an unpopular war, the narrow victories and defeats in a number of individual races is due in large part to the GOP's sophisticated and technologically advanced voter turnout operations. Even Dean acknowledged this: If imitation is the highest form of flattery, "My business model is the RNC" is as solid an endorsement as any. According to Dean, Republicans only lost because of what they sold. Democrats adopted microtargeting practices that Republicans have been refining for several years, with specific programs in six states this season. While Republicans have mastered this science, Democrats have just finished assessing their canvassing techniques in states like Virginia, according to Dean.
Values voters swing right, but not all the time. According to exit polls, voters who considered value issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion to be "extremely important" represented the largest group that supported Republicans over Democrats (by a margin of 18 percent). However, compared with 2004, Democrats did make modest inroads (single digits, between 4-8 points) among Protestants, born-again Christians, and weekly churchgoers, which could have made a difference in some races. When asked a question about the role of faith in the election, Dean discussed the party's efforts to appeal to the so-called values voters through concentrated ad campaigns on Christian radio and by recruiting socially conservative candidates. Some conservative, pro-life Democrats did win, such as Bob Casey, Brad Ellsworth, and Heath Shuler.
So, was this election a thumping? From a broad view, yes. On a microcosmic level, no; Bush was right. But you don't get a prize for almost coming in first.
Whitney Blake is an editorial assistant at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.