Why Kerry lost - a theory of relativity

With evaluations of the Bush victory over John Kerry filling the air, it seems a good moment to ask a few questions - and try to answer them.

Q: Why did Mr. Kerry lose?

A: Most observers I've been hearing and reading are citing the moral issues as the ones that did the most to turn the election toward the Republicans. But I would contend that the personal preference for George Bush among a high percentage of the voters was also a vital ingredient in that 3 percentage point edge that Mr. Bush was given.

Pollster John Zogby had reported a finding early in the campaign that showed Bush far ahead of Kerry in "likability." Then on the eve of the election Mr. Zogby met with the Monitor group and reported that while that likability gap had narrowed somewhat, it still remained very much in Bush's favor.

Beyond that, several pollsters were finding that when they asked the question, "How much do you want your candidate elected?" Bush ran far ahead of Kerry in what they called their "intensity" poll.

Poll findings showed that what mightily motivated Democrats to vote was their intense desire to oust Bush, often expressed angrily. Republicans showed much less of such a feeling about Kerry. Most of them quite clearly were voting for Bush and not against Kerry.

A question here: Could it be that affection for one's own candidate is a more powerful motivator in getting a person to go to the polls and vote than dislike or even hatred of the other candidate?

Q: What assessment of the election can we offer?

A: We made it through a fiercely fought campaign and the voting with a clear winner. That's a real plus - considering all the forecasts of another protracted and chaotic postelection period.

My unhappiness was with the negative ads that we were bombarded with, from both sides, all during the campaign. So many of these ads were simply vicious, unsubstantiated attacks. I would turn off my TV set when they would come on, muttering, "What have we come to?"

Then my thoughts would often take me back to the "good old days" when the presidential battles were fought in a much more civil way.

I remember being with my father when I cast my first ballot for president in 1936. It was a proud moment, too. As we walked along the street into town and then up the steps of City Hall in Urbana, Ill., where we were to vote, I heard, again and again, neighbors greeting us and saying "good luck" to my Dad, who was running for county surveyor. So my thought back then was focused on voting for my father, who was on a ballot where we were making a choice between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Alf Landon for president.

In deciding how to vote back then, we read the papers, viewed Pathé News reels when we went to the movies, and discussed the issues with friends and relatives. And Dad and I had long talks and little debates. There was some advertising - leaflets from candidates that would be thrown on our porch. They merely contained the credentials of a candidate and his request for support.

We had radio. I do recall listening to the national conventions with my father. But there were no political ads - or campaigning - on radio. And, of course, this was before we had television.

So, can't something be done to curtail all this hateful garbage being hurled at us on TV? Can't some restriction be imposed that won't infringe on freedom of speech?

(Oh, and yes, Dad won by defeating his Democratic opponent by a few votes. And while he did this, FDR's long coattails were sweeping all the other Democrats on the ballot to victory.)

Q: Who will be the presidential candidates in '08?

A: John McCain is the early favorite to become the GOP nominee. And it could be argued that Kerry, by waging such a good fight and coming close to winning, has earned another chance. But already I'm hearing prominent Democrats say, on TV, that someone other than Kerry might have won. And these same Democrats downgraded John Edwards's campaign performance, predicting he hasn't helped his presidential prospects very much.

Hillary Clinton seems to be the early Democratic favorite for the next presidential run. But maybe some particularly attractive Democratic governor will emerge from the South or Southwest - as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did - and grab the nomination.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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