The 2004 US Presidential Election was very close: had only one state (Ohio) flipped to John Kerry, George W. Bush would've been a one term President. Bush is often considered one of America's worst Presidents, and many wonder why he was re-elected despite a weak economy, the Abu Ghraib scandal, and the revelation that Saddam Hussein in fact didn't have WMDs at the time of the Iraq Invasion.

So why did Kerry lose to George W. Bush?
 
The economy was doing relatively well in 2004 and the Iraq War hadn't become really unpopular yet. A September CBS poll found that 54 percent of Americans supported the invasion.
 
Kerry was a Democrat's answer to Mitt Romney in a sense that he just didn't excite anyone, while with Bush, he ran dirty and still somewhat had the "rally around the flag" effect going for him.
 
  • Economy was OK in 2004.
  • Anti same-sex marriage amendments on the ballot to mobilise the Religious Right.
  • Swiftboating undermines Kerry's war record.
  • Kerry's unfortunate tendency to explain things ("I was for it before I was against it", with reference to Iraq).
  • Iraq not yet seen as a catastrophe - cheap slogan of "stay the course" vs "cut and run."
 
Yep. And with the economy and Iraq not going off the rails yet, there wasn't much reason for W's 2000 voters to change their minds. Also not much reason for Democrats who stayed home in 2000 to be motivated.
 
IMO it makes more sense to ask why Kerry nearly won than why he lost. The fundamentals were against him. Bush's job approval ratings were of course down from the post 9/11 heights but were still mostly at least slightly net positive in 2004. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/president_bush_job_approval-904.html
https://news.gallup.com/poll/116500/presidential-approval-ratings-george-bush.aspx The economy was good and the Iraq war was not nearly as unpopular as it would be by 2006. All in all, a fairly narrow Bush victory is exactly what one should have expected.
 
Shrek 2 reminded people that everything was gonna be ok and The Reason by Hoobastank was on the airwaves. There was no hope for Kerry when people were consuming such shite.
 
Pretty simple, honestly. The economy was still doing well, Bush didn't have any major scandals yet, and the war hadn't blown up in his face yet. Candidates running against incumbents generally don't win unless the incumbent has messed up in some way, and people didn't perceive Bush as having done that yet. Same reason why McGovern lost in '72. Really, any Democrat would've lost in that year, because again, the economy was still doing alright, Watergate hadn't blown up, and people felt that Nixon was moving towards the end of the Vietnam War. The replacement of Eagleton was really what turned a pretty bad loss (that really wouldn't have been much worse than, say, Ed Muskie would've received) into a complete blowout.
 
Shrek 2 reminded people that everything was gonna be ok and The Reason by Hoobastank was on the airwaves. There was no hope for Kerry when people were consuming such shite.
All the awesome music in 1972, or the Movies like _Cabaret_ or _The Godfather_didn't help McGovern.
 
IMO it makes more sense to ask why Kerry nearly won than why he lost. The fundamentals were against him. Bush's job approval ratings were of course down from the post 9/11 heights but were still mostly at least slightly net positive in 2004. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/president_bush_job_approval-904.html
https://news.gallup.com/poll/116500/presidential-approval-ratings-george-bush.aspx The economy was good and the Iraq war was not nearly as unpopular as it would be by 2006. All in all, a fairly narrow Bush victory is exactly what one should have expected.
And on a personal level Bush was much more appealing figure than a snob like Kerry.
 
Don’t forget that the debate moment Kerry had with, “I was for it before I was against it” with the Iraq War wasn’t a particularly good answer.
 
I know this might be off-topic to the OP, but I truly think Bush could’ve been a great President. After 9/11, he had the opportunity to truly unite the country for the first time in a long time. It’s a shame that he felt that he had to surround himself with people (Cheney, Rumsfeld, John Yoo, Scooter Libby) who proved to be a toxic influence.
 
Kerry also wasn't that inspiring, and aptly tagged as 'Lurch' from the Addams Family didn't help, or the digs on him marrying into Money, or what he did after doing the heroic stuff in Vietnam, the medal tossing reminded people of that whole mess
 
The economy was doing relatively well in 2004 and the Iraq War hadn't become really unpopular yet. A September CBS poll found that 54 percent of Americans supported the invasion.

Broadly-speaking, this, more or less. War support and the economy were just holding up well enough to ensure a re-election. Obviously there were micro factors like Rove's aggressive mobilisation of voters and Kerry's deficiencies as a candidate but the big picture pointed in Bush's direction. I think a narrow re-election was the default outcome. It certainly wasn't an election which should have been 'in the bag' for the Democrats. The notion that Bush was toxic by the next election, ergo he should have lost in 2004 is a teleological reading - the factors that made him so unpopular four years later hadn't arose by 2004.
 
Last edited:
My bug's eye view as a canvasser in Florida, summer '04:

Bush had a great ground game based around the "Avon Lady" model of of organizing. You get one Bush super-fan (or a few) in every congregation you can find. You teach them- via a basic but all-too-sufficient set of websites and emails- how to host a "listening" party for members of their social circle. You get these friends and neighbors to tell their fellows why they're excited about Bush, in their own words (eh, with maybe a few talking points for reference). Let the situation on the ground determine what the most important issues are.

The Kerry campaign in central Fla was more hands-off. League of Conservation Voters wants to send 200 kids out to the suburbs to talk about Kerry's commitment to the environment? What can we do to help? HRC, you're setting up a forum to talk about gay rights? Here are our talking points.

I was out there as a door-knocking grunt with LCV and I think I saw two people directly from the Kerry campaign the entire time I was there. But LCV wasn't exactly local, either. We were shipped in. Bush's people knew the territory.

The contours of the electorate from my POV:
1) Kerry's base was all in across the board.
2) Bush's base was tying the word "socialist" to Kerry a lot more than I think history seems to indicate; perhaps we were outliers here, or perhaps (gasp) it doesn't really have a concrete meaning for a lot of people other than "I don't like it!" They also quite frequently brought up the "gay agenda." This was huge in central Fla, again from my direct recollection.
3) Swing voters were just NOT interested in any of the issues that drove the various volunteers. They weren't driven by gay rights, the environment, opposition to the war. They might oppose our positions or agree with them, but they weren't going to base their vote on them.
4) Honestly no one that I recall brought up military service or Swiftboating at all. This is pure conjecture, but I think maybe it worked better as a way to take a club- military service- out of Kerry's bag than to give Bush any ammunition. It was still not a strong point for his people to bring up.

Anyway, I felt a lot more support the summer before, working on the Dean campaign.

Out-played on the ground, that's what it felt like come November.
 
It was just a very different time before the Great Recession. The exclusionary, "with us or against us" patriotism that you often see among modern, Trump-era right-wingers very much existed back then, with one key difference: in 2004, it was the mainstream culture. The Dixie Chicks, one of the biggest bands in the world, saw their careers implode overnight when Natalie Maines dared to speak out against the Iraq War. The Homeland Security Advisory System was taken seriously, and it never went below "elevated". It was popular to bash France for opposing the war, to the point where "freedom fries" were briefly a thing. "Support Our Troops" ribbon magnets were on the back of every other car. The NFL started actively cultivating ties with the military in order to position itself as "America's sport". And it touched the nascent internet culture, too. There was a site called DeadArab.com devoted to memes celebrating the most hawkish elements of the George W. Bush administration and denigrating Arabs and Muslims with every stereotype in the book. Virtually every Flash animation website, from Newgrounds to Stickdeath, was filled with jingoistic propaganda. Eric S. Raymond, the free and open-source software activist, went off the deep end and became a raging warhawk, penning an "Anti-Idiotarian Manifesto" that accused all critics of the War on Terror of being useful idiots for al-Qaeda while regurgitating pro-war propaganda calling for attacks on Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. This was criticized even at the time, but those who did were either part of the counterculture to begin with, or were marginalized and seen as unpatriotic (see above re: Natalie Maines) until the war started turning into a quagmire. Notice how many politicians today, even within the Republican Party, try to distance themselves from the militarism of the 2000s; it's because, in 2004, the only debate on the Iraq War was whether or not Bush was prosecuting it properly.

On top of that, the Christian Right was still in a position of power. They had their man in the White House, without all of the "yes, but..." compromises they made with Donald Trump. Abstinence-only sex education was taken seriously rather than seen as a joke, and "ex-gay" conversion therapy wasn't seen as the unremitting horror that it is today. Janet Jackson's career was destroyed by her Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction, and Massachusetts legalizing same-sex marriage led to moral panic; even in 2008, Barack Obama couldn't (no pun intended) publicly come out and support anything more than "civil unions". Teen idols like Britney Spears, Jordin Sparks, and much of the Disney Channel's roster were deeply embedded in abstinence culture; in 2008, Sparks, while presenting an award at the MTV Video Music Awards, gave a speech defending "purity rings" that was loaded with slut-shaming overtones. The teen comedy Saved! from 2004 satirizes a lot of this pretty well. The mainstream populist disdain for the super-rich that emerged after the Great Recession was also non-existent. Shows like The OC, Laguna Beach, Gossip Girl, and even My Super Sweet Sixteen* presented their subjects as people to look up to and emulate, hip-hop music was neck-deep in its "bling era", and Paris Hilton was a legitimate, un-ironic A-list celebrity. The lifestyles of the elite were celebrated as aspirational, and the people who rose from humble beginnings to achieve them were proof that you too could one day do the same if you worked hard enough. The site Pop Culture Died in 2009 documents how omnipresent a lot of this stuff was in mainstream pop culture.

*(Quite tellingly, at the height of the recession MTV made a series of slasher movies called My Super Psycho Sweet 16 that were basically marketed under the promise of "hey, you wanna see these little rich twerps get what they have comin' to 'em?")

IMO, asking why Bush won in 2004 is a bit like asking why Lyndon B. Johnson won in 1964. Sure, Bush never had the perfect storm against John Kerry that Johnson did against the deeply unpopular Barry Goldwater, but the fundamentals were on the sides of both candidates: the election was held at a time when people thought that the system worked, in the immediate aftermath of a national tragedy that the incumbent was well-positioned to exploit.
 
Last edited:
Top