A race that defied conventional wisdom

By James Harding

Financial Times

Published: November 1, 2004

Late last week, as President George W. Bush gave the latest of countless recitations of the lofty lines from his stump speech - this time to a crowd of thousands in a cold, dark Pennsylvania field - Karl Rove, his chief political adviser, appeared in front of the press tent to offer his state-by-state assessment of the race in the final stretch.

Pulling from his pocket a note embossed with the Air Force One logo, Mr Rove rattled through a list of the 10 battleground states and declared that Republican internal polling had Mr Bush ahead in eight of them. In four, he said, the president was ahead beyond the margin of error. He did not dwell on the implication that, even by the campaign's own calculation, Mr Bush is not safe in six of 10 of the states needed to secure a win.

"I'm feeling good," Mr Rove told the throng of reporters around him. But when asked to make a specific prediction about the outcome in the electoral college, as he did so confidently and so inaccurately in 2000, Mr Rove declined. "No predictions," he said, cheerfully thanking his questioner for choosing to "rub my nose in it, again".

Even for the boosterish Mr Rove, Tuesday's US presidential election is too close to call. After what was effectively a tie in 2000, America remains stubbornly split into two equally apportioned camps. If early and undisputed results allow Mr Bush or John Kerry, the Democratic challenger, to be declared the winner tomorrow it is expected to be by a slender margin.

The remarkable events of the past four years - the bloodiest attack on American soil, two wars, almost 1m lost jobs, depressed stock prices and fundamental arguments over tax, God and the environment - do not seem to have changed the basic arithmetic: the most diverse society in the world is, politically speaking, a binary nation.

"It is a mystery," says Arthur Schlesinger Jr, the eminent historian who has seen the cycles of American history give way, for now, to an entrenched equilibrium. "45 per cent of the electorate loves Bush, 45 per cent loathes him. The war haunts America, but it does not guarantee immunity to the president."

The reappearance of Osama bin Laden in the closing days of the 2004 campaign has only underscored how the divide has reasserted itself time and again throughout this election battle, and how it is set to loom over the presidency to come. The intervention of the al-Qaeda leader appears to be reinforcing the prejudices of both sides.

On the one hand, the vivid evidence that Mr bin Laden is alive, well and bent on torturing America chimes with Mr Kerry's argument: that Mr Bush demanded the al-Qaeda leader's capture "dead or alive" but was distracted by Iraq and did not get the job done.

On the other, Mr bin Laden's message played powerfully for the president, presenting him with a chance to take to the television screens not as a candidate but as commander-in-chief. It offered an opportunity for Mr Bush to focus attention on the war on terrorism, his strongest suit in this election.

When Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said: "We do not believe the American people are going to be intimidated," it appeared that the Bush campaign was banking on the spirit of American defiance. US voters, the Bush team seemed to calculate, would not go the way of the Spanish - who were swayed after a terrorist attack days before their election this year. They would show their vote was not to be determined by outside forces.

This has been a campaign in which the debate over national security - involving both Iraq and the war on terrorism - has drowned out all domestic issues for the first time since 1960. It has not been "the economy, stupid", but "the war, of course".

But one of the most confounding aspects of Mr Bush's presidency has been his inability, in a time of national trauma, to break the political equilibrium. Past national traumas in American history have been dealt with by leaders able to organise their policies to secure a sound governing majority: Abraham Lincoln in and after the civil war, Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression and the second world war, Ronald Reagan towards the close of the cold war.

Mr Bush had the backing of most Americans in the months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But it has not lasted. In 2004 Mr Bush's approval rating has been stuck at or just below 50 per cent.

The divided nature of American public opinion has been one reason why this election campaign has up-ended conventional wisdoms and widespread political assumptions.

Republicans had banked on their proven ability to raise more funds, and spend more, than the Democrats, but they were more than matched dollar for dollar.

In 2003, the Republican National Committee, the Bush-Cheney campaign and the House and Senate campaigns looked set to overwhelm the race financially, raising a cumulative $340m. Democratic committees raised just $95m and Mr Kerry $25m. But Democratic donations soared in 2004. Mr Kerry outshone Mr Bush in fundraising in the first half of the year, collecting $161m to the president's $95m.

The Democrats have more than made up the overall shortfall when the "527 groups" - political organisations free to raise big money donations - are counted in: the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington research group,calculates that Democratic groups have hauled in $263m compared with $79m by Republicans.

The first presidential election since the passing of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms has been the most awash with money in the history of US politics. George Soros and fellow billionaires may have raised more money to savage Mr Bush in TV advertisements, but the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose advertisements savaged Mr Kerry, got a bigger bang for fewer bucks.

The old rule was broken that whoever wins the "money primary" - that is, the candidate who picks up the most financial contributions in the year before the election - wins his party's presidential nomination. Howard Dean, the doctor-turned-governor from Vermont, received the greatest number of cheques and endorsements early on, but was undone by the caution of Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats, who voted practically, not passionately. Mr Dean's anti-war message was superseded by Mr Kerry's assumed "electability".

The media, supposedly liberal, has, in fact, cut both ways. It has been a campaign coloured as much by Fox News' generally flattering coverage of the president as by Michael Moore's savaging of Mr Bush in Fahrenheit 9/11.

And an election involving a sitting president has not been just a referendum on the incumbent, but has also been a referendum on Mr Kerry. When the Democratic challenger finally honed his message - after bolstering his campaign with a crew of Bill Clinton's veterans in late August - he relegated talk of his heroism in Vietnam and the message of "strong leadership" that reverberated at his party's convention in Boston. Instead his argument against Mr Bush was reduced to two, two-word soundbites: "wrong choices" and "fresh start".

Mr Bush, meanwhile, sought to turn the election into a vote on Mr Kerry, who was portrayed as a risk to US security at a dangerous time, a muddle-headed senator who flip-flopped on his vote to support American troops in combat, and a man with a pre-9/11 mindset.

The choice, as put by each side, has been most effective when it has been most negative. "We are just an evenly split country in so many ways," says Frank Luntz, the pollster. "Instead of attempting to mollify those divisions, they have exploited them. In these final weeks of the campaign, both campaigns have focused on negative emotions."

The choice, in short, is this: can America afford another four years of Mr Bush - or can it risk four years of Mr Kerry?

Tom Rath, a senior adviser to four Republican presidential campaigns and a Republican National Committee delegate from the neck-and-neck state of New Hampshire, says: "Neither side has been able to close the deal."

For all the efforts by both campaigns to home in on wavering niche groups who could tip the balance - gun-loving union workers, church-going progressives for stem cell research, big business for healthcare reform, pro-choice "security moms" - the numbers have remained 50:50. The durability of the split, in spite of what might have been expected to have been 9/11's jolt to business-as-usual politics, owes much to the complexity of the war: "The war on terror is not an easy war to understand or to win," Mr Rath says.

Other Republicans privately say that Mr Bush skewered his own chances of breaking the deadlock in American politics by invading Iraq. If it were not for Iraq, says one senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, Mr Bush would be up by 15 points.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, agrees. The endurance of a divided America "in part reflects the value divide", he says. But he adds: "If Iraq had gone well, I don't think this election would have been close. Before Iraq went bad, the president had good approval ratings. This president bet his presidency on Iraq."

Iraq and terrorism promise to be factors that will reverse the trend in voter turnout ton Tuesday. More people are expected to vote than at any time in at least 12 years. High turn-out has historically been an advantage for the Democrats. But Republicans boast that their 1m volunteers will get Bush voters out to counter the Democrats' marginally larger base and advantage among the millions of newly registered voters. The undecideds in the middle are also equally contested.

Bob Poe, who experienced the excruciating wait for results in Florida four years ago as the then chairman of the state's Democratic party, says "some of [the entrenchment] has to do with the disputed election in 2000 and there are some residual bitter feelings about that."

But he, like others, is now beginning to worry about the future, not the past - fearing for the challenge that awaits the next president. "It is going to be awfully tough [to break the deadlock]," says Mr Poe. "In all of this there is a cultural divide, that is in the undercurrent of it all. And that is a big problem. We are at a crossroads here, trying to find and define ourselves."

John Zogby, the pollster, puts it simply: "Whoever wins will have to be the great healer."

As another extremely tight election looms and Americans fear an outcome that may once again be contested in the courts, there is public foreboding of what the division may do to the US, and a concern that the arguments will leave the country antagonised and worse off - whatever the result.

Bin Laden springs an October surprise

For months, John Kerry and his aides have fretted over the possibility that US forces might deliver Osama bin Laden in a cage in the waning days of the presidential campaign, handing a gift to George W. Bush that would all but assure him of a second term in the White House.

Yet when reports surfaced late on Friday afternoon that television networks would air a new video in which the terrorist mastermind threatened America with “another Manhattan”, the Kerry team seemed genuinely surprised.

After a campaign rally in West Palm Beach, Florida - the stage for the 36-day recount that decided the election four years ago - Mr Kerry retired to his black, bullet-proof Chevrolet Suburban for a telephone briefing from Rand Beers, his chief national security adviser. Then, as his motorcade rolled toward the airport, the Democratic challenger huddled with a group of aides, including John Sasso, Stephanie Cutter and Mike McCurry, to plot his response to an October surprise that could seal the outcome of tomorrow’s election.

“I will stop at nothing to hunt down, capture or kill the terrorists,” Mr Kerry declared moments later on the airport tarmac.

The frenzy behind the Kerry response, and the recycled message it gave rise to, suggest that, as the campaign enters its final hours, the Bin Laden tape means everything and nothing.

In the short-term, it has upended the tactical plans that both campaigns had made to carry them across the finish line. The carefully crafted closing arguments that the candidates delivered on Friday morning, for example, were suddenly rendered meaningless in the wake of Mr bin Laden’s broadcast. Ditto for the week’s dominant news story, about almost 400 tonnes of high explosives that had gone missing in Iraq. Mr Kerry had been using the story to hammer Mr Bush for incompetence in waging the war, and the senator’s aides were optimistic that the assaults were giving the challenger last-minute momentum.

But more than anything, Mr bin Laden’s tape crystallised what this race has been about from the beginning. In spite of the candidates’ efforts to try to sway voters with discussion of stem cells, abortion and gay marriage, Tuesday’s outcome will probably serve to confirm which man has persuaded Americans that he is better able to protect them, be it in the canyons of lower Manhattan or the battlefields of Iraq. Given that, Mr Bush has had an easier time grappling with its implications. Polls show that the war on terror is the one issue on which voters clearly prefer him to his Democratic challenger.

The president and his campaign team had plenty of time to consider this on Friday. Mr Bush was informed of the Bin Laden tape at least four hours before Mr Kerry. Even before voters were aware of Mr bin Laden’s remarks, Mr Bush was addressing them. In his campaign speech that morning he reminded his audience that “the terrorists who killed thousands of innocent people are still dangerous and they are determined”.

Over the weekend, supporters such as John McCain, the Arizona senator, extended the message, confidently predicting that the tape was “very helpful to the president”. That sentiment might explain why Walter Cronkite, the retired US television anchorman, quipped that the tape must have been the work of Karl Rove, the Bush political strategist who has attained a Wizard of Oz aura.

In spite of losing the initiative, the Kerry campaign would not deviate from their script. “We’re confident we’ve got a winning message and we’re going to continue to stick with it,” Mr McCurry, an import from the Clinton message machine, told reporters in Wisconsin.

This was not entirely true. On Friday night, during Mr Kerry’s first rally following the tape’s release, he dropped his regular claim that the administration was to blame for the failure to capture Mr bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora last year because they outsourced the job to unreliable Afghan warlords. That characteristic display of Kerry caution did not seem worthwhile, since the Bush campaign had already seized on such remarks made by the senator earlier on Friday before the tape’s existence had been confirmed, to claim that Mr Kerry would say just about anything to get elected.

The hope among Democrats was that as voters’ initial shock at the Mr bin Laden’s reappearance passed, they would view the tape not as a vindication of Mr Bush’s muscular foreign policy but as a reminder of his failure to deliver on his promise to bring the terrorist leader to justice dead or alive.

By Saturday afternoon, Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, was claiming that overnight opinion surveys reflected such a sentiment was already taking root. That was not necessarily borne out by a host of independent polls, most of which showed little movement in the deadlocked race over the weekend. If indeed Mr bin Laden’s recording ends up supplying the margin of victory for Mr Bush’s re-election, the irony will be inescapable - not least for Spanish voters, who were urged by the Bush administration not to be swayed by terrorist attacks when they went to the polls this year in the wake of the Madrid train bombings.