Simple message helped Bush secure re-election


WASHINGTON -- As a political junkie who was born and raised in conservative southern Ohio, I was acutely interested in a post-election study by the liberal group America Coming Together of why President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry in the Buckeye State.

The answer, according to the study, sends a message that is conveniently flattering to grass-roots organizing groups like America Coming Together as Democrats prepare to choose a new party chairman and assess where they go from here.

Stated perhaps too simply, the message sounds a lot like this: Blame the candidate for his loss, don't blame the thousands of hard-working volunteers and door-to-door street workers organized by America Coming Together and other grass-roots groups.

The organization polled 1,400 rural voters in Ohio counties that Mr. Bush won by an average of 17 percentage points and came up with answers that defy much of the conventional post-election wisdom.

Was it an outpouring of churchgoers, driven by the Bush "moral values" agenda and the gay marriage referendum, who won it for Mr. Bush? No, exit polls show the share of Ohio's electorate represented by frequent churchgoers actually declined to 40 percent in 2004 from 45 percent in 2000, Steve Rosenthal, chief executive officer of America Coming Together, noted in Sunday's Washington Post.

So was it the Bush campaign's superior mobilization of Republican strongholds that suppressed turnout in Democratic areas? Not really, Mr. Rosenthal noted. The turnout in Ohio's Democratic-leaning counties was up 8.7 percent, while the turnout in Republican-leaning counties was up slightly less, at 6.3 percent. And Mr. Kerry did better than Al Gore in Democratic strongholds.

Mr. Rosenthal similarly discounted any wave of newly registered Republican voters in fast-growing rural areas for Mr. Bush's victory.

The America Coming Together poll and others indicate it was not the local ground effort to get out the vote but terrorism and the war in Iraq that lost Ohio and the national count for Mr. Kerry.

Despite the obviously self-serving nature of that conclusion, Mr. Rosenthal is on to something.

For example, the Bush side's most expensive and, in my view, most emotionally powerful television ad was a $14.5 million spot by the Progress for America Voter Fund that featured a digital snapshot of Mr. Bush at a campaign stop in Lebanon, Ohio.

In the photo, which ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Mr. Bush spontaneously hugged 15-year-old Ashley Faulkner immediately after hearing that she had lost her mother in the World Trade Center.

The look on his face was one of genuine grief, empathy and comfort. It ended with Ms. Faulkner's voice saying: "He's the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe, that I'm OK."

Mr. Kerry's side had ads featuring 9/11 survivors too, but the power of the story in "The Hug," in which Mr. Bush became part of the drama without any prompting from any handlers or spin doctors, is indisputable.

The photo powerfully illustrates a narrative, a story, that gave Mr. Bush a powerful edge in the terrorism issue. "They produce a narrative, we produce a litany," James Carville, a Kerry consultant, said on NBC's Meet the Press. "They say, 'I'm going to protect you from the terrorists in Tehran and the homos in Hollywood.' We say, 'We're for clean air, better schools, more health care.' And so there's a Republican narrative, a story, and there's a Democratic litany."

And, alas, there's a Republican victory when Mr. Kerry failed to tie his list of promises and proposals together into a unifying vision as persuasively as the Bush campaign did.

It all reminds me of how my generation of Ohioans grew up with simple unifying values like, "You don't change horses in midstream" and you don't change presidents during a war. Even during the late days of the Vietnam War, when I, along with many hometown friends, reported to the induction center in Cincinnati, despite our doubts about how that war was going. At the time, all that we knew clearly was that we were being called to fight to protect our families and country from global communism. So we went.

So it is with many of those who voted for Mr. Bush despite reservations about what the war in Iraq has to do with 9/11. Cutting through the fog of long, complicated histories and details, they voted for a guy they thought they could trust.

Simple messages carry a lot of weight.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing company. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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