By most accounts and analyses, Senator John Kerry beat President George Bush in all three televised debates, but it was the latter who won the presidential election.
While media pundits argue that the 2004 elections were the closest and most bitterly contested in modern US history, elections observers are now focusing on the behind-the-scenes planning of the campaign strategies, the television and radio adverts, and how the parties reached out to middle America.
In a recent speech titled The American Presidential Elections: The American Democracy Between Theory and Reality, former Republican senator Robert Kasten said the Republicans were more organised, more creative, quicker to react to campaign emergencies and more focused in the demographics they sought to win over than their competitors.
Addressing the Prince al-Walid bin Talal Abd al-Aziz al-Saud Centre for American Studies and Research in Cairo, Egypt, Kasten said a new type of community is emerging in the US, one that lies between the urban, suburban and the rural, and which became the focus of the 2004 elections.
“It’s an area where people move with their children because they believe in a better future. They are concerned about their kids and schools, they go to church regularly, and participate in the community process,” he said.
“That part of America is where this campaign was focused.”
According to the election results, Bush won nearly 59 million votes against Kerry’s 55 million, with 114 million votes counted. A record 120 million, representing 60% of the electorate, voted in the 2004 elections.
For the Republicans, TV adverts
When the results were announced late on 2 November, Europeans and Arabs were astounded that the US should have re-elected a president presiding over an Iraq war going wrong, a faltering economy, human-rights abuses, and unemployment.
But non-Americans may have underestimated the impact of television adverts and the Republicans’ effective use of the media and the manner in which it swayed the electorate.
According to Kasten, the Swift boat adverts – among others – delivered successive deadly blows to the Kerry campaign. It was this, coupled with a Republican strategy to use the media to its greatest effect, that won the Bush vote.
Define your opponents
For his part, Egyptian journalist and elections observer Muhammad Fuad said Bush used the media to implement a new policy – Define your opponents to the people before your opponent gets to define himself.
“No one doubts the role played by media in general but in this particular election media played a key role and was behind the success of Bush and the Republicans,” Fuad, who writes for Al-Ahram newspaper, said.
“The Bush campaign used one of Kerry’s statements against him where they showed him as a hesitant person, incapable of taking firm decisions.”
Enter the flip-flop
Kasten agreed. He pointed to a political advert sponsored by the Republican Party which said Kerry was “flip-flopping”, or being fickle, on important domestic and foreign-policy issues.
Titled John Kerry: Whichever Way the Wind Goes, the advert depicted Kerry windsurfing on a summer vacation. At one point, the wind reversed and Kerry was seen surfing in the opposite direction. The advert was used to highlight how Kerry allegedly took a particular stand on an issue and then voted the other way.
The Swift boat ads called Kerry’s
“When Kerry said ‘I actually did vote for the 87 billion before I voted against it’, he made a mistake and it was a terrible mistake and they [Democrats] couldn’t figure a way out of it. There is no editing,” Kasten says.
Kerry had now been “defined” by the Republican party as a flip-flopper. But the media definition campaign did not end there.
Shortly after the Democratic National Convention, the Republicans sought to reverse any boost the convention might give the Kerry campaign and ran a series of adverts challenging Kerry’s Vietnam record.
Adverts hurt swiftly
The adverts featured several servicemen who served with Kerry or were affiliated with his unit during his military rotation on the Swift boats river patrols in Vietnam.
They charged that Kerry did not deserve the military citations and awards he received, that he had lied about events leading to his rescue of a fellow serviceman, and that he was incapable of making the right decisions under pressure.
Kasten: The Democrats could not
“The Bush campaign put out these commercials and for weeks the Kerry campaign, The New York Times and the CBS, CBC, the big media, if you will, did not pay attention to them. They thought that they were a group of flakes that you did not have to pay much attention to. And they did not realise what was happening,” Kasten said.
For 10 days after the first Swift boat adverts ran, the Kerry campaign had no clear strategy of responding to the allegations made. Mainstream media had managed to steer clear of the adverts, but the internet and cable news outlets were running them constantly.
Soon enough, Kerry’s Vietnam war record as legitimate evidence of his stand on national defence and national security, faded.
When the Kerry campaign finally responded, using John Edwards to target America‘s south, the damage had already been done, Kasten said.
“But neither of those ads could stop this effort that John Kerry could not be trusted. John Kerry could not be strong on national security. John Kerry could not do the job to protect our kids.”
Big Republican win
Kasten said Republicans made significant gains even in states that have traditionally voted Democrat. While the Bush campaign managed to increase their vote tally in traditionally Republican states by nearly 20%, the surprise statistic is that they also gained a 16% increase in votes in traditionally Democratic states.
Kerry was not as effective with
For the first time in 40 years the Republicans won overwhelmingly increased their legislative seats.
“[The] Republican picked up five seats in the Senate. Those five seats were primarily from the south where you saw southern Democrats being defeated by Republican challengers or southern Democratic choosing not to run against them because they were worried about being defeated by a challenger and therefore it became an open scene. North Carolina and South Carolina and Republican challengers in those seats were successful.”
But perhaps the most surprising result may have emerged in the voting trend of the Hispanic community. Bush, an eloquent Spanish-speaking former governor from Texas, where a large Hispanic minority dwells, effectively used Spanish-language television stations to get his message across.
“The Hispanic minority in the US won’t be [a] minority forever,” according to Kasten.
“The Hispanic minority is increasing dramatically in the US. The Democrats did not have a hang of this until just towards the end, and John Kerry the same way. He did not look exactly like the average person and he did not exactly seem comfortable, as a governor from Texas, as a supposed governor from Texas, in relating to the Hispanic community.”
Shock and awe
By contrast, many Arab analysts have described the Republican re-election campaign as one built on fear.
Among them is Shaban Hidaya, a journalist with the Egyptian daily Nahdat Masr. According to him, Republicans employed the strategy of “shock and awe”.
Arab analysts say Republicans
He said: “The Republicans successfully exploited the awe policy. They used people’s awe from terror and made the people believe that only Bush can protect them.”
Hidaya said Bush’s victory was indicative of how an extreme right-wing movement could influence the outcome of an election.
“Although they won with a little differential, their success reflects how extremism in all religions dominate and have the upper hand not just in the United States but all over the world and not only in Islam but in Christianity and Judaism as well,” he said.