The purples won

The very close numbers of reds and blues shows that moderates, not the religious right or Gavin Newsom, swung the election

All the caterwauling by media types who insist the only way the Democrats can win the presidency in 2008 is with a religious Southerner has me laughing. Well, painfully chuckling anyway.

The sheep-like view from The New York Times and so many others that “moral values” jumped to new prominence in 2004, driven by ardent churchgoers worried about gay marriage, sounded right to me—at first. But then I peered closely at the vote and recalled the truism that conventional media “wisdom” is too often bunk.

Many have seized on exit polls showing that 22 percent of voters said “moral values” were the most important issue. But as national Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin notes, President George W. Bush increased his support among non-regular churchgoers more than he did among churchgoers. That speaks to a wider support for Bush, unrelated to strong religious convictions.

The same exit polls that handed the media their “moral values” news peg showed that the economy and terrorism roughly tied with “moral values” as a concern to voters. The real story this election year—posing trouble for both the Democrats and the Republicans—can be seen in tantalizing outcomes in places like Sacramento, Ventura and San Diego counties, where the locals split nearly 50-50 between red and blue. They were a microcosm of the national election.

I hope you’ve seen the national county-by-county red and blue map showing Democrats winning most cities—but very few other places—in a sea of red. San Franciscans took to the streets, calling the American heartland “stupid.” But there’s a more constructive conversation to be had here.

Let’s first put to rest the idea that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, though clearly an ego-on-a-stick, handed the race to Bush. Newsom’s staging of thousands of illegal gay marriages was play for his own national fame. On that level, Newsom’s actions worked beautifully. He’s now famous. But his arrogance toward a touchy cultural issue may have been a factor in turning much of America against gay marriage, inspiring voters in 11 states to approve constitutional amendments to prevent it. Many of those states went further, even banning civil unions.

Newsom is just one in a long line of foolish California pols who don’t live in the real world. But he didn’t elect Bush. The data show that the “moral values” crowd did not increase, as a percentage of voters, from the “moral values” crowd that voted in 2000. There was no evangelical bump. Period. Instead, Bush got elected by more voters from every group that went to the polls.

This is bad news for the Democrats, but California’s unusual voting patterns show that both parties have plenty to worry about and fight over. The exurbs—booming communities well outside the huge cities—are the new voter hotspots. These areas are jammed with swing voters who are joining the Republican fold but are still up for grabs.

Sacramento County is a perfect example, with its burgeoning suburbs within commuting range of a good-sized city. The county split nearly 50-50 on the Bush-Kerry question. Same for Ventura County, a sprawling exurb of high-priced homes. There were 50-50 splits throughout California. In Southern California, the huge Inland Empire, well removed from Los Angeles, went for Bush. But Los Angeles County went heavily Kerry.

Kerry won by about 10 points in California, with many provisional ballots still uncounted by press time and some Republicans hoping Kerry would drop to a single-digit lead. But Republican pollster Stephen Kinney was among many who saw lessons for both sides, and a continuing struggle by both camps even in a supposedly “blue” state.

“California is just one of those states that doesn’t like people who show their faith openly, no matter the faith, and that helped Kerry and other Democrats tremendously,” said Kinney. “On the other hand, the Democrats’ depressing message for the last several presidential election cycles—of a glass half-empty and of more taxes—has let Republicans get a foothold with swing voters here and elsewhere.”

That’s why in California, Republicans improved their showing with swing voters, including white Democratic men, Republican working women and Latinos with children. Yet, Democrats still won hugely in California, riding Bush’s negative coattails on religion and Iraq. The anti-Bush coattails helped Democrats hold every Democratic state legislative seat and congressional seat.

Unless the Democratic Party also wants to lose California, the last thing the party should do now is panic and seek a prayerful Southerner to run for president. The great weakness for the Democrats is not their candidates but their downer message of gloom and doom. That message over the past decade or so has put them on the skids with voters nationwide, slowly handing control of Congress to Republicans. Democrats will lose strength in their city bastions if they start blaming the messenger and fail to update their message.

For their part, the Republicans are far too enamored of the religious right, which immediately took undue credit for electing Bush, even though only a tiny percentage of new evangelicals voted. History will show that swing voters handed Bush his margin. The vast population of women voters split about 50-50 over Bush and Kerry. Yet, four years ago, Democrats enjoyed a comfy “gender gap” in which women chose Al Gore by 11 points. No more.

The answer is obvious: The two parties both need to woo moderates if they want to come out on top. Even California is more moderate than it is leftist. In heavily Democratic Los Angeles County, for example, Measure A to hire more cops failed on November 2 because overtaxed voters don’t believe more taxes are the answer. Yet, Kerry ran on raising taxes that would have hit business owners who make more than $200,000 a year, dismissing them as the “wealthy.” Bad message.

By the same token, Republicans are still stubbornly holding tight to their minority status in both houses of the Legislature. In Sacramento, Republicans have been the minority in the Legislature since 1958 (1958!), except for three or four years when they got a toehold. Despite their awful track record, the California GOP continues to alienate voters on major issues—for example, on the environment.

It’s as if neither party is willing to learn from voters. California voters take their issues on a case-by-case basis. We have more pragmatists and political mutts than we do members of the hard left and hard right. That’s why we backed stem-cell research but decided not to soften the “three strikes, and you’re out” law. Our “polarized” half-blue and half-red counties, like Sacramento and Ventura, are places of lively debate—not horrific polarization.

But the media need a crisis and label us polarized. Scholars note that the 2004 election was no more polarized than many past elections for president. Yet, even now, the talking heads are straining to prove how polarized we are. Many in the media, for example, have begun making the completely unsupportable claim that abortion was a huge dividing issue in this presidential election. It wasn’t.

Less than 2 percent of Americans cited abortion as a major issue this year. Abortion did not play a key role in part because few Republican candidates ranted about it like they did back in the 1990s. But, in addition, voters no longer unquestioningly believe the Democrats’ panicky claims that “backroom” abortions are around the next bend. Choice is alive and well, despite four years under a born-again president and a conservative U.S. Supreme Court.

Gay marriage did become an issue—but not in the way the crisis-driven media are breathlessly claiming. Pat Caddell, the former pollster for President Jimmy Carter, sounded loud warnings that Newsom was hurting gay progress with voters of nearly every political stripe. And that’s what happened.

“I am so damn mad,” said Caddell. “Gay leaders’ only chance of winning rights for civil unions was by incrementally building a consensus. But Newsom and others decided to jam their urban left view down voters’ throats. The arrogance was mind-boggling. It caused gays to lose civil-union rights in several of these states. Forget about gay marriage.”

As Caddell said, the supposed right-wing cultural victory on November 2 being touted by many talking heads is largely phony. The real story of the 2004 election was the Republican sweep of so many counties—even in California. John Kerry cannot be blamed. He was a strong campaigner, despite claims to the contrary by enraged lefties like Arianna Huffington.

Yet, Kerry won big only in coastal California, the heavily urbanized Northeast, cities along the Mississippi River, the urbanized coastal Pacific Northwest, Chicago and its environs, and a few other spots. That urban vote is not enough, and the Democrats need to broaden their message—but not fake a sudden affinity for God. USA Today analyst Paul Overberg notes that 150 million people live in red counties—exurban, suburban and rural places won by Bush. By contrast, just 103 million people live in the blue counties—urban spots won by Kerry.

Our razor-close presidential votes show we are balanced, not polarized. The Democrats need to make a better case, but they shouldn’t get sucked into the ridiculous spin from the religious right and the urban left. Moderates know the problem wasn’t that Kerry hailed from the wrong state and failed to say his prayers. It was the message, not the messenger.