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Hail to the chief exemplar of conviction politics

By Don DeBats - posted Tuesday, 9 November 2004

Like Australia's recent election, the American election was a study in contrasting campaign styles and issues. In both elections a conservative incumbent, who was loathed by elites, triumphed on the day. In both, opinion polls, having long given a lead to the incumbent, concluded on election eve that the contest was too close to call. But on election day the voters delivered a decisive victory to the incumbent.

George Bush's triumph, like John Howard's, was a personal one - but each of these victories also reflects fundamental changes underway in the respective electorates. Metropolitan elites and opposition party strategists will pay a high price for ignoring the realities reshaping both nations.

The 2004 US election was an historic Republican victory. The Republicans increased their majorities in the House of Representatives and, more critically, in the Senate, building on 2002's successes. Sound familiar? The US South and Plains states now form a political base that may sustain the Republican party for decades. This political sea-change, first visible in 1994, has set in place a new majority party replacing the Democrats, who had dominated for six decades.


That the Democrats lost all five open Senate seats in the South, despite nominating outstanding candidates, is a measure of this transformation. From this new base, the Republicans will set about the transformation of the US Supreme Court, now closely balanced, but with vacancies clearly in prospect.

President Bush will have a strong majority in the Senate to confirm his appointments. And those appointees will still be on the Supreme Court, shaping its opinions, years and years after George W. Bush has retired from the White House to his ranch in Texas.

Bush is now well placed to march forward with his second-term agenda. Domestically: health care reform, social security reform and addressing the budget deficit.

Internationally: Bush must find a resolution in Iraq while maintaining pressure on North Korea and Iran.

But above all Bush, like Howard, must avoid post-election hubris, and he must unite the American people and pacify America's allies.

The US campaign featured two contrasting approaches. The Democrats outsourced much of their "ground war" to organisations like which relied on enthusiastic, untrained workers to motivate people who had never before voted, to vote Democrat. Overwhelmingly, the motivation offered was hatred of Bush.


The Republicans' Karl Rove, by contrast, devised a person-to-person plan using hundreds of thousands of committed Republicans to mobilise the party's ideological core.

His strategy was to increase the vote for Bush in traditional Republican strongholds and to show likely voters that this election was all about values.

The core of the Democratic campaign was that Kerry was not Bush; the core of the Republican campaign was that Bush was Bush.

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First published in the Canberra Times  November 5, 2004.

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About the Author

Don DeBats is Head of the Department of American Studies, Professor of American Studies and Professor of Politics and International Studies at Flinders University, Adelaide. His research focus is 19th century U.S. political history and he keeps a close watch on contemporary U.S. politics.

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