Primaries Past (2004): Ohio Tips the Scales for Bush
Not quite Florida, but still pretty close
Each week now until the Republican Primary on Jan. 21, Patch will look back at the primaries in South Carolina from 1980-2008, with an emphasis on the GOP. Every Republican winner in South Carolina earned the nomination, an unprecedented streak in electoral history. This is the seventh in the series. See Patch’s stories on previous campaigns here.
In some respects this year’s GOP primary looks similar to the Democrat primary in 2004. A group of eclectic candidates stepped up to challenge a president of middling popularity. As for South Carolina, 2004 was that rare election cycle where it was the anomaly rather than the norm.
Incumbent George H.W. Bush had a 90 percent approval rating in the months after the terrorist attacks of September 11. But his popularity had waned significantly when it became clear that getting out of Iraq would be a lot harder than going in.
Thinking Bush vulnerable, nine Democratic candidates lined up to take him on. The early favorites were former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. The notable name missing from the list was former Vice President AL Gore, who lost the disputed election of 2000. Gore instead opted to focus on environmental causes.
Dean was the early frontrunner. He tapped into voters’ outrage at the way the Iraq War was being conducted. The war was thought to be the driving issue for many voters but exit polling showed that voters ranked the state of the economy and the cost of health care higher in priority.
Dean spent a massive amount of time and money in the first two voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, as did fellow candidate Richard Gephardt. But caucus voters in Iowa chose Kerry and Edwards ahead of Dean. And on election night Dean made a concession speech that gave the impression to television viewers he was yelling at supporters. The speech, which became known as the “Dean Scream,” made Dean appear overly emotional and unpresidential. But it was later reported that Dean was merely talking above the crowd noise, which had been silenced for television. And Dean had also been battling the flu which made him looked flushed.
But the damage was done. Dean was viewed as a hothead. When he lost New Hampshire to Kerry by over ten percentage points, Kerry became the frontrunner. The party quickly rallied behind him and he lost only four states the rest of the primary season en route to the nomination. One of the states he lost, incidentally, was South Carolina, which went to Edwards.
Edwards strong showing and his appeal to Southern voters made him a natural choice as Kerry’s running mate. But Kerry would not win a single state below the Mason-Dixon line.
The general election was a bitterly fought race. Much like his father did against Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bush sought to portray Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal who would be soft on defense. Bush managed this feat despite the fact that Kerry was a decorated Vietnam War Veteran. Bush had not serve in Vietnam, instead joining the Texas Air National Guard.
In the first of three debates, Kerry blasted Bush for his handling of the Iraq War and his previously flagging campaign finally took the offensive. But Bush recovered in the second debate.
When election night came pundits predicted that it could be a replay of 2000 in terms of closeness. They were right. But this time it did not come down to Florida.
Instead, the nation trained its focus on Ohio. For a time, New Mexico and Iowa were in play, and it was a possible that the electoral vote could have ended up even at 269 had those states went for Kerry. But they went for Bush and it came down to Ohio.
As election night turned to the following morning, Ohio—and therefore the presidency—had still not been decided. Though three other states would end up having smaller margins separating the candidates, reports of irregularities with the electronic voting machines in Ohio made it the center of attention. If Kerry won the Buckeye State, he would have defeated Bush in delegates 271-266 despite losing the popular vote, just as Bush had in 2000.
But on Wednesday afternoon Kerry conceded after the Ohio Secretary of State said that even if all the provisional and contested ballots went for Kerry, the state would still be awarded to Bush.
Later, Kerry said that he believed irregularities had prevented the will of the people from being served. The matter was put before Congress prior to it certifying the election, but neither the House nor the Senate took action.
- Though Dean did not earn the Democratic nomination, his performance was noteworthy in two respects. He was the first candidate to utilize the Internet as a fundraising tool, raising millions from individual donors. Dean’s skill at fundraising led to him being picked to head the Democratic National Committee. As head of the DNC, he piloted a “50 State Strategy” in 2008 that was pivotal to the election of Barack Obama.
- The 2004 presidential election reinforced the feeling that the United States was a Red State-Blue State country. Only three states voted differently than they did in 2000: New Mexico and Iowa went from Democratic to Republican and New Hampshire went from Republican to Democrat.
- Bush easily defeated Kerry in South Carolina, 58-41 percent.