‘George W. Bush’s second election in 2004 would not have happened without the events surrounding the attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11.’ To what extent is this a true statement?

The 2004 United States presidential election was significantly altered on the morning of September 11th 2001. As a result, security, terrorism and the Iraq War were dominant subjects during the 2004 campaign (McAllister, 2006, p.260). Although the course of the election; the salient issues and prominent talking points were manipulated by the events surrounding 9/11, the principle emphasis of this paper is to establish whether or not these events and their influence on the campaign of 2004 resulted in a differing outcome to the election. Prior to attending to the question at hand, it is imperative to contextualise the discourse with a background of the fallout following the 2000 election and the results of 2004 in order to determine the pertinence of the debate and the political implications of the 9/11 attacks. Ultimately, the central claim of this paper is that had 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror not have happened, President Bush would not have won re-election in 2004. In spite of this, it is critical to acknowledge the logic of Asher (1995), that nevertheless, it is difficult to re-run the election without 9/11 happening, as the events surrounding 9/11 fundamentally changed the dynamics of the 2004 election (Asher, 1995, p.170). On the other hand, this does not mean that there are not important questions to be considered regarding whether or not President Bush would have followed in his father’s footsteps as a one-term president without the events surrounding 9/11. This paper will address a range of contributing and consequential factors that influenced the results of the 2004 election. The central claim is predicated on issues such as the benefit of increased turnout in 2004, the polarised nature of public opinion on the war on terror, the Iraq War and the advantage of serving as a president during a period of crisis, all of which are heavily linked. Before turning to the issue of whether or not 9/11 was critical to Bush’s re-election, the outcomes of both the 2000 and 2004 elections will be discussed. The results of which own heightened relevance due to the close nature of both elections.

The controversies surrounding 2000 election threatened to undermine Bush’s presidency before he had been inaugurated. “Although Al Gore won the nationwide popular vote by over 500,000 votes” (Agresti and Presnell, 2001, p.117) he lost the electoral college 266-271 (Burden in Weisberg and Wilcox, 2004, p.235); a loss only secured after “Florida’s Electoral College votes deciding for George W. Bush” (Agresti and Presnell, 2001, p.117). This occurred once the Supreme Court halted the recount of votes that looked set to reverse the initial Bush victory in Florida and hand the presidency to Al Gore (Norpoth in Weisberg and Wilcox, 2004, p.49; Kessel in Weisberg and Wilcox, 2004, p.65). “Gore’s electoral vote total is the highest ever for a losing candidate” (Burden in Weisberg and Wilcox, 2004, p.235) and the election was the first in over 100 years of which the popular vote winner did not win the electoral college (Burden in Weisberg and Wilcox, 2004, p.235). Viewed by many as an illegitimate president, the events surrounding 9/11 quickly altered Bush’s first term as he was transformed from a potential lame duck president to a wartime president within a matter of hours on the morning of September 11th 2001.

Moving forward to the 2004 election, Bush enjoyed an advantage that he did not possess in 2000; incumbency. Conventional wisdom has long held that there is an inherent incumbency bias in electoral politics (Gordon and Landa, 2009, p.1481). Mayhew (2008) found that two-thirds of the time, the incumbent party wins the presidential election (Mayhew, 2008, p.211-213). Furthermore, since the second World War, only three presidents have failed to win re-election; Ford in 1976, Carter in 1980 and Bush in 1992 (Burden and Hillygus, 2009, p.631; Charnley, 2007, p.111-112). After the controversies surrounding the previous election, “more than 122 million Americans voted in the 2004 presidential election, nearly 17 million more than in 2000. This was a 16 percent increase in the total vote” (Campbell, 2005, p.219) and “turnout jumped from 54 percent of eligible voters in 2000 to 61 percent in 2004” (Abramowitz and Stone, 2006, p.142). Additionally, public awareness was also much higher (Kenski and Jamieson, 2006, p.243). The salience of increased turnout will be addressed later in the paper. In 2004, Bush won the popular vote by just over three million votes (Klinkner, 2006, p.281), and although this may seem like large difference, in reality the election was much closer than the popular vote indicates, as he won “by the narrowest percentage of any reelected president in history” (Jacobson, 2005, p.199). This resulted in Bush narrowly winning the electoral college 286-251 (Federal Elections Commission, 2005, p.13), but had Ohio voted Democrat, Kerry would have carried the presidency. A “switch of 60,000 more votes in Ohio […] would have swung the electoral college from Bush to Kerry” (Todd in Sabato, 2006, p.25). President Bush himself acknowledged the closeness of Ohio (Bush, 2010, p.294-295) and this highlights how narrow his victory in the 2004 election was. As a result of this, the events surrounding 9/11 grow in salience in regards to the outcome. Had Bush or Kerry won by a landslide, 9/11 and the events that followed would not be considered as critical to the campaign and by extension, to the result. With the closeness of the election recognised, the driving forces behind the result will be addressed, notably increased turnout, polarisation, the debate surrounding the key to Bush’s re-election and the advantages of serving as a wartime president.

Firstly, as one of the key mobilisers of turnout in 2004, it is critical to discuss the polarisation of public opinion towards President Bush, both before the 2000 election and during his first term. Partly because of the controversial manner of his victory in 2000, “Bush took office with the widest partisan difference in approval of any newly elected president” (Jacobson in Edwards and King, 2007, p.246). In extension of this, “the candidate who had pledged in his 2000 acceptance speech to be ‘a uniter, not a divider’ had, by the end of his first term in office, become the most divisive president on record” (Jacobson in Edwards and King, 2007, p.245-246). This prior polarisation, grouped with the heightened perception that voting could be decisive to the outcome of the election, following the closeness of the result in 2000 and the dual subject of the polarising manner in which Bush governed and the polarisation towards the combined issues of the Iraq War and terrorism were the predominant contributing factors to the surge in turnout at the 2004 election. In relation to terrorism and the Iraq War, the polarisation of the electorate is of paramount importance to the outcome of the race in 2004 as “security and Iraq did indeed have a major role in promoting turnout in the 2004 election” (McAllister, 2006, p.273). On the one hand, it has been argued that “opinions on the Iraq War were central to explaining President Bush’s victory largely because the Iraq War is at the center of an intense partisan divide” (Klinkner, 2006, p.295). Whilst on the other hand, it can be argued that “rather than opinions on the war influencing opinions of Bush, opinions of Bush may well influence opinions on the war” (Klinkner, 2006, p.293). It is unclear as to which had more of an influence on the other. This is highlighted by the fact that “in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, the Iraq issue also became closely associated with Bush’s personal qualities as president” (McAllister, 2006, p.260). Although, what is clear is that the intense polarisation surrounding both Bush and the combined issues of the Iraq War and terrorism were fundamental in the upsurge in turnout for the 2004 election. McAllister (2006) finds that:

“While all partisans were more likely to turn out to vote […], those who voted were disproportionately more likely to have been Republican rather than Democratic partisans […]. It would indeed appear that Bush benefited in the election from the higher turnout” (McAllister, 2006, p.275).

This shows the extent to which the combination of extreme polarisation towards the events surrounding 9/11, principally the Iraq War, and the intensely divided opinion of President Bush were critical to Bush’s electoral success in 2004. Not only did Bush himself and the 2000 election drive up turnout, the manner in which he ran his administration following the 9/11 attack, including going to war with Iraq, were also highly influential in his achieving re-election. This view is supported by both Philip Klinkner (2006) and Ian McAllister (2006) who contends that “Iraq had an important influence in promoting turnout in the election, which increased Bush’s vote, and in shaping the election outcome” (McAllister, 2006, p.260).

“Following the 2004 presidential election, journalists and pundits seized upon religion and public concerns about moral values to explain President George W. Bush’s victory” (Guth et al, 2006, p.223). However, although the moral values argument played a role in the 2004 election, it was not the critical area of debate (McAllister, 2006, p.272-273). Research by academics has proven that polarisation surrounding terrorism, the war in Iraq and the political advantages of being a wartime president, which are closely linked to the war on terror and therefore the events surrounding 9/11, were the principle drivers behind Bush’s re-election. Nonetheless, it must be mentioned that advocacy for the moral values argument worked in concurrence with advocacy for Bush’s war on terror to the detriment of John Kerry’s campaign, as “politically speaking, a vote for Bush was a vote for his values” (Ripmaster, 2005, p.74). Klinkner (2006) contends that “social and moral issues played only a small role and that foreign-policy issues were central to the outcome of the election largely because of significant partisan polarization on the issue of Iraq” (Klinkner, 2006, p.281) and the broader debate on terrorism. This is evidenced by the following statistics:

“The NES asked […] “What do you think has been the most important issue facing the United States over the last four years?” […] 43 percent of voters cited terrorism as the most important issue. […] second was the war in Iraq with 17 percent […]. Moral and social issues […] made up less than 3 percent of responses” (Klinkner, 2006, p.284).

Moving past the moral values debate, and back towards the influence of the Iraq war and terrorism on the outcome in 2004, it is important to note that in his paper, Klinkner differentiates between the two issues. Whilst it is a distinction that not all of the scholarship acknowledges, separating terrorism and the Iraq War is may appear to be acceptable in the case of Klinkner’s paper on the grounds of data he provides, most notably that “voters who thought Iraq was the most important issue voted just as strongly for Kerry (69 percent) as voters who thought terrorism was the most important issue did for Bush (70 percent)” (Klinkner, 2006, p.286). Conversely, this statement fails to account for a major factor; only 17 percent of the electorate viewed the Iraq War as the primary campaign issue. This is not a large enough demographic to conclusively say that Kerry ‘won’ the subject of the Iraq War for the entire electorate. This is compared to the 43 percent that chose terrorism, of which 70 percent voted for Bush. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to discount Klinkner’s distinction between the two issues as insignificant to the over-arching argument that both were highly influential subjects in the re-election of President Bush. Klinkner does concede that:

“Bush’s advantage on terrorism was much greater than the advantage Kerry received on the issues of Iraq or the combined issues of unemployment and the economy. Overall, Kerry’s advantage among those who cited Iraq, unemployment, or the economy/jobs as the most important issues was not enough to offset Bush’s advantage on terrorism” (Klinkner, 2006, p.286).

This indicates that Bush’s overwhelming dominance of the most prevalent campaign issue, one that was closely tied to the events surrounding 9/11, was a primary factor in his success during the 2004 election. Furthermore, “security constituted the core of Bush’s campaign, while Kerry’s campaign was focused more toward socioeconomic issues, such as health and the budget deficit (McAllister, 2006, p.274). This suggests that “if there was indeed an advantage associated with increased turnout in 2004, given the importance of security and Iraq to voters, we would expect it to have flowed to Bush, not to Kerry” (McAllister, 2006, p.274), which again, underlines the importance of increased turnout in the re-election of Bush. Turnout that was generated predominantly by intense polarisation on the dual issues of terrorism and the Iraq War.

This leads into the next argument that Bush benefited greatly by serving as a wartime President. When operating in a time of crisis, such as under the threat of terrorism or during a war, the public is likely to view their political leader as more charismatic (Landau et al, 2004, p.1136; Bligh, Kohles and Meindl, 2004, p.211), which in turn has positive affects for blame attribution towards the leader for poor job performance, in addition to promoting self-sacrificial voting behaviour (Merolla, Ramos and Zechmeister, 2007). Merolla, Ramos and Zechmeister (2007) found that during a crisis, specifically under the perceived threat of a terrorist attack, participants viewed Bush as more charismatic, which in turn reduced the likelihood that these participants would apportion blame towards Bush for his handling of the Iraq War (Merolla, Ramos and Zechmeister, 2007, p.30). Furthermore, “scholars of presidential approval have found that during times of crisis citizens increase their levels of support for the incumbent administration” (Merolla, Ramos and Zechmeister, 2007, p.33; Williams et al, 2009, p.81). This was found to be consistent across both Republicans and Democrats in relation to President Bush (Merolla, Ramos and Zechmeister, 2007, p.38). Because Merolla, Ramos and Zechmeister’s (2007) research was experimental, it is important to contextualise the advantage that Bush actually received in regards to the 2004 election:

“The fact that the United States was operating under the threat of crisis was identified often by the media and by politicians. Numerous news reports suggested Al Qaeda was planning an attack on the United States in the period before or near election time” (Merolla, Ramos and Zechmeister, 2007, p.32).

Even though no attack had been realised, and the threat of terrorism was still only a threat, the circumstances in which the electorate were operating were the same as a crisis condition (Huddy et al, 2005, p.593). This caused a ‘rally’ around effect in which voters swing their support behind the president (McAllister, 2006, p.278). Moreover, in relation to the self-sacrificial behaviour that is common from the public during a time of crisis, it has been contended that in 2004, personally, people were concerned with socio-economic issues (Mellman in Shea and Arterton, 2006, p.191-192). However, people had to make a judgement over what concerned them personally and what they viewed the job of the president to be at that time (Mellman, in Shea and Arterton, 2006, p.192). This exemplifies the self-sacrificial behaviour of putting the needs of the country before personal needs. The perception that this was necessary and that the nation was in a heightened sense of crisis can be attributed to the constant stream of information reminding the electorate of the grave danger of terrorism. “The Bush team strategically ran ads designed to remind individuals of 9/11, and his vice presidential candidate worked hard to remind citizens of what Cheney ironically stated were things “you don’t want to think about.”” (Merolla, Ramos and Zechmeister, 2007, p.40).

This highlights the effectiveness of the Bush campaign machine in 2004, which helped to mobilise voters and driving up turnout to Bush’s benefit. The Bush Administration was also very effective at linking Iraq and the Iraq War to terrorism. “There is considerable evidence to show that the 9-11 attacks fundamentally changed the public’s views of Iraq” (McAllister, 2006, p.263). Which gave the Bush Administration the opportunity to gain support for the Iraq War by linking it to terrorism. Furthermore:

“those who believed there was a high terrorist threat to the United States were disproportionately more likely to support the Bush administration’s policies […]. It was therefore in the Bush administration’s interests to associate Iraq with the threat of terrorism against the United States at every opportunity” (McAllister, 2006, p.263).

It has already been established that those who supported Bush and his policies were much more likely to vote for him in the 2004 election, meaning that linking 9/11 and terrorism to Iraq and the Iraq War was crucial in allowing the administration to be able to subject the electorate to constant exposure to the dangers of terrorism, which in turn increased turnout and intensified support for Bush. This was a highly efficient campaign strategy, as it was only following the 2004 election that public support began to drastically swing against support of the Iraq War (McAllister, 2006, p.266; p.277).

Interestingly, in a departure from the conventional norm, Karol and Miguel (2007) advocate “that were it not for the approximately 10,000 U.S. dead and wounded by Election Day, Bush would have won nearly 2% more of the national popular vote, carrying several additional states and winning decisively” (Karol and Miguel, 2007, p.633). However, their paper is primarily concerned with the costs of Iraq War causalities, not the overall impact of the war on the 2004 election, which has been shown to be an advantage to Bush. Further still, they acknowledged “the possibility that the President benefited because the war primed voters to weigh terror-related concerns more heavily” (Karol and Miguel, 2007, p.646), whilst also conceding themselves that “it is conceivable that on balance the War aided President Bush’s 2004 campaign” (Karol and Miguel, 2007, p.646).

In conclusion, the 2004 election could be viewed as lost by Kerry, as opposed to won by Bush. It has been argued that “another nominee or a better campaign would have carried Ohio, and very likely held onto Iowa and New Mexico” (Cook in Sabato, 2006, p.280). This may be the case. Nevertheless, 9/11 and the events that surrounded the attacks were both the foundations and the platform by which President Bush gained re-election. They were fundamental to his first term and crucial to his campaign strategy in 2004. It is important to highlight that there were other contributing factors, such as Bush ‘winning’ the moral values argument and his incumbency. Additionally, there is also the fact that history cannot re-run his presidency and re-election campaign without the happening of 9/11. However, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the benefit of increased turnout, due to the dual issues of terrorism and the Iraq War, and priming of the electorate on these issues were critical to Bush achieving a second term. This is summed up by the quote: “this election was a product of a fabulous Bush-Cheney campaign apparatus and an incumbent who was helped immeasurably by his handling of the 9/11 tragedy” (Cook in Sabato, 2006, p.299). This, in conjunction with the evidence provided throughout this paper and the closeness of the result, conclusively supports the central claim of this paper that Bush would not have secured re-election in 2004 without the events surrounding 9/11.

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