WASHINGTON — The last election that we just endured is still being quantified and dissected. From the seemingly endless forums and reviews that have flowed since Nov. 2, we are learning a bit about how our elections are run and won.
The 2004 presidential election was a landmark election in America. It was the most expensive, the most intrusive and the most technologically advanced. The manner in which it was fought will cast the way politics is practiced in America for the immediate future.
It was money that changed the practice — not to the extent that barrels of cash overwhelmed the system but rather that smart political operators had the resources to try new technologies and use alternative media that had an impact by bringing to the American scene new ways of reaching voters.
Both presidential campaigns had plenty of money — and spent about the same — a little more than $1 billion each counting support group spending. The Bush campaign had a tremendous advantage, however, because it had plenty of money very early on.
From the day that Bush stuck his hand in the air four years ago to take the oath of office, his political team worked toward his re-election, and they always had plenty of money to work with. The Democratic candidate eventually caught up on the money trail, but it was late last spring before the Democrats were comfortable with their funding.
We are told that the basic premise of the Bush campaign, from before Day One, was that it had to coalesce basic support groups, motivate them and turn them out at the polls. The campaign assumed that no more than 7 percent of the total electorate would be undecided about whom to vote for before the campaign started.
The campaign could (and did) neglect the undecided. It spent its time, energy and money communicating with supporters to make sure they went to the polls on Election Day and voted for their favorite.
How the campaign went about this task is the textbook that was written. The Republicans have always lagged in voter turnout. They do not have the power of the city machines and the labor unions to bolster their efforts to get voters to the polls. Karl Rove, the Bush campaign generalissimo, understood that very well and set about to rectify the problem. He tested his theories with the 2002 elections — and then used them effectively.
Republican efforts stressed motivating “true believers” and organizing them to do the door-to-door, face-to-face work of getting out the vote. This meant neighbors cornering neighbors, congregants working on others, and person-to-person contact in small communities.
Motivation was specific. Using its time and money, the Bush campaign built a database from commercial lists that defined the lifestyles and preferences of their targets. The campaign learned their political preferences — not just whether they were Democratic or Republican but also what their trigger issues were.
They used this knowledge to perfection. National Rifle Association members got messages related to the threat of gun control. Pro-life activists got messages concerning abortion. There were messages for every taste, all designed to reinforce the need to re-elect Bush to protect the voters’ favorite issue.
The Bush campaign drew down its spending on television to focus on more individual messages through personal contact. They knew they would have a tremendous money advantage in the spring when the Democratic candidate finally wrapped up the nomination after spending a fortune on the primaries.
Before their opponent could refill his treasury, they pounced with a broad and negative campaign, introducing the John Kerry that they wanted people to know before he had a chance or the resources to get his own messages out.
The Democratic campaign was more traditional and less personal. It relied heavily on television to carry the messages. It relied on the traditional support groups and the newly minted organizations to do the foot-soldiering.
The only thing really new about the Democratic campaign was its use of the Internet, which reaped a windfall in fundraising. But the campaign failed to match expectations for organization and activities aimed at getting out the vote. And, of course, the quantity of things was new — never before had the campaign been so fully funded.
The new toys of technology will be around for a long time, and will be supplemented by new and more sophisticated items. The lessons that the campaign masters learned in 2004 will serve as the base for future campaigns.
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