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Sat, Oct. 19

Republicans had better ground game this time

WASHINGTON – Two huge trendlines, Ohio not withstanding, emerged from Tuesday's election: the continuing decline of the Democrats in wide swaths of electoral territory across the South and West and the growing Republican majorities in Congress.

The focus on the eventual mathematical settlement of Ohio's electoral votes in President Bush's favor seemed to obscure the larger picture of what happened Tuesday night: First, Bush won 51 percent of the popular vote, the first time a president's done that since 1988. Second, he did it as his party significantly expanded its representation in the House and Senate, which doesn't happen very often in national reelection politics.

That didn't happen with some heavy presidential hitters who won elections and re-elections by huge margins – such as Ike or Reagan – but Bush and his party did do it. The president and the GOP won a bunch of long-held Democratic seats in the Senate in the South and, for good measure, knocked off Tom Daschle, the intensely partisan Democratic leader of the Senate who was Bush's chief adversary.

What happened to the Democrats Tuesday night now will become the basis for another agonizing reappraisal of what's wrong with their party. Look at the electoral map and the vast regions of the country Bush and the GOP carried, including its expanding gubernatorial ranks, and you have to question whether the Democrats are a true national party any longer.

In the end, it all came down to which side could turn out more of their voters. This has always been a deciding factor in most elections, but it is pivotal in elections where the polls show the race was dead even, as this one was.

But two critically important turnout tools have not changed: shoe leather and phone banks – the door-to-door canvassing of voters, the follow-up calls or visits to see that people voted and, if not, getting every one of them to the polls.

The Bush campaign clearly defeated the Democrats in this ground war, but big strategic differences distinguished their operations: Bush's ground game comprised volunteers who knew the neighborhoods and, in many cases, knew their neighbors.

Kerry's ground organization did this, too, but much of its get-out-the-vote army was mercenaries, paid workers, brought in (sometimes from out of state) to offset the GOP's grassroots advantage, especially in GOP-dominated suburbs.

Another key factor that did not seem to get enough media attention had to do with which candidate had the advantage on the issues. It turned out that Bush, going into Election Day, either led Kerry on the two big issues or was relatively even with him on others.

When the Gallup Poll asked voters on the weekend before the election what issues would influence their vote for president most, 31 percent said the war on terrorism, 28 percent said Iraq, 27 percent said the economy.

It came as no surprise that Bush received his strongest support on "who is better able to handle the war on terrorism" – 54 percent to 43 percent.

But the response on who could better handle Iraq was surprising, after the insurgency the president has encountered there that was the focus of fierce attacks from Kerry and his allies: 51 percent said Bush could do a better job versus 47 percent for Kerry, Gallup reported.

Even more surprising was the answer to the question "do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq or not?" Kerry, after all, called this "the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time."

But Gallup found that 52 percent said "no," it was not a mistake; 44 percent said it was.

In other words, yes, Americans were divided over Iraq, but after all that has happened in this bloody struggle to turn a terrorist-breeding country into a peaceful, democratic nation allied with the United States, a clear majority still believes we did the right thing.

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