After a long, bitter campaign fight-and a seemingly endless election night-no one wanted to miss the moment of victory. They'd crammed into the Ronald Reagan building the night before, all those well-dressed, well-scrubbed Bush loyalists, hoping for a victory speech that never came.
So by 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 3, before John Kerry could even make his concession official, the faithful in Washington already were lined up three deep outside the Reagan building, anticipating the moment they'd worked so hard for. Supposedly, only campaign volunteers and invited guests from the previous night's abortive celebration would be allowed into the tightly secured hall, but hardcore Bush fans weren't about to let that stop them. They toted Blackberries and whipped out printed e-mails from friends working on the campaign-anything to prove they had some connection to the winner.
Once inside, huge TV screens showing Fox News riveted their attention. There was a grim-faced John Kerry, saying the words this crowd had waited so long to hear. It was official. It was over. And the Supreme Court hadn't even gotten involved.
Despite dire warnings of dirty tricks, contested ballots, and razor-thin margins, the election of 2004 produced a clear winner within 15 hours of the first poll closings. Though the Electoral College map shifted almost imperceptibly from 2000, Mr. Bush swamped his opponent by 3.5 million popular votes, achieving the first outright majority in a presidential election since 1988.
But the relative ease of his win belied the deep divisions in the country. In his congratulatory phone call at 11:00 Wednesday morning, Mr. Kerry twice pressed the president to bridge the divide that separated the parties-and Mr. Bush twice agreed it was important to do so. Hours later, in his public concession speech in Boston's Faneuil Hall, an unusually emotional Mr. Kerry made his point explicit. "America is in need of unity and longing for a larger measure of compassion," he said, after choking back tears in thanking his supporters. "I hope President Bush will advance those values in the coming years."
Within minutes, the president delivered a bridge-building speech of his own, asking for the support of Democratic voters: "A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole country," he said.
After an unexpectedly strong win, however, many cultural conservatives were in no mood to talk about reconciliation with the liberals. Mr. Bush's margin was big enough to count as a mandate, in the eyes of his most fervent supporters.
"Today, the president owes the pro-life movement a huge debt," Operation Rescue President Troy Newman said in a statement just moments after the Kerry concession speech. "Mr. President, you have been given a mandate to end abortion in our nation by the American people who cast their votes for you. Please move forward aggressively to appoint pro-life federal judges, and when the time comes, appoint Supreme Court Justices that will strike down the scourge of Roe v. Wade."
Moments later, the Christian Coalition cranked out a similarly aggressive-sounding news release pressing for passage of the Federal Marriage Amendment and a new Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act. "Radical liberals have used every trick in the book to try and silence the church. The sleeping giant has been awakened and will refuse to be intimidated by secular fundamentalists."
Despite the hyperbole of some on the right-perhaps induced by euphoria mixed with lack of sleep-there was widespread consensus that Mr. Bush owed his reelection largely to his evangelical base. "Christian evangelical votes made the difference in this election, there's no doubt about it," said Roberta Combs, executive director of the Christian Coalition. "Four years ago they didn't really know President Bush, and they didn't turn out as strongly as they might have. But I think Christian evangelicals got to know him and trust him. They know he's a man of faith-he's spoken about it and he's practiced it."
But Matthew Spalding, director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center at the Heritage Foundation, warns that focusing on evangelicals alone misses the full impact of what the president has accomplished in terms of coalition-building. "It's not just the religious right-this is bigger. Bush got a significant portion of the Hispanic vote-42 percent. He got 11 percent of the black vote nationally and better than that in some states. He got the Catholic vote, the Protestant vote. It's now accurate to say there's a bloc-there's a group out there that takes these moral issues seriously. They're the cornerstone of the Bush coalition."
Mr. Spalding points out that one in five voters on Nov. 2 cited "moral values" as the most important issue driving them to the polls. "No one saw that coming. They expected it to be all about jobs and terrorism." Because of their religious blind spot, he says, the mainstream media "completely missed the larger movement in American politics-that is, that we are seeing a moral alignment of great magnitude for this country."
That moral alignment, he says, is "about a whole basket of issues, not just abortion. . . . We know abortion is very important, and the pro-life vote went 70 percent plus for Bush." But it was another moral issue-one that got very little attention during the campaign-that may have turned the entire election in the Republicans' favor. "This was clearly a 9/11 election," Mr. Spalding says. "I believe the post-9/11 threat was the single most important issue with most voters. But if there was a side issue that decided several states and gave Bush the presidency, it was the defense-of-marriage issue."
Indeed, constitutional initiatives limiting marriage to one man and one woman swept the board on Tuesday, winning by margins of 60 percent to 80 percent in all 11 states where they appeared on the ballot. Though gay marriage was rarely mentioned during the campaign, Mr. Bush did come out early in favor of a Federal Marriage Amendment-a position opposed by Mr. Kerry. That seemed to work in the president's favor: Of the 11 states voting on the measure, Mr. Bush carried nine of them. (Only Michigan and Oregon went to Mr. Kerry.)
But it was Ohio-the linchpin of the entire election-where the issue appeared to be most pivotal. All day, exit polls had predicted good news for the Democrats, and newscasters privy to the poll results could barely contain their glee. Then, when the polls closed in Ohio at 7:30 p.m., came the first hint that something might go seriously wrong with the Kerry momentum.
Within moments after voting ended in the Buckeye State-and more than 12 hours before Mr. Kerry was willing to admit defeat there-the networks predicted a big win for Ohio's toughest-in-the-nation ban on gay marriages and civil unions. On NBC, Tom Brokaw let out a low whistle. The implications were obvious: A 2-to-1 winning margin for the marriage amendment (known in Ohio as Issue 1) suggested a bigger GOP turnout than anyone had anticipated.
All across the country, politically savvy Republicans seemed to get a second wind from the quick victory for Issue 1. At a bar in Arlington, Va., the site of a local Republican victory celebration, many were glued to presidential election returns in Florida and Ohio. But Tess Taylor, a Filipino-American wearing a casual gray suit festooned with Bush-Cheney buttons, said she was most interested in the 11 state measures on gay marriage. Among the Filipino community in the greater Washington area, she'd seen many of her friends switch from Democrat to Republican over the course of the campaign, largely because of marriage and family issues.
When Issue 1 breezed to victory in Ohio, she was convinced the Christian vote would win Mr. Bush a second term. "I'm very, very positive it's Bush's," she said around 11 p.m., hours before anyone had called the election. "It's the [religious] vote that's going to win," she said. "It's the first time that I've seen Christians and Catholics really rallying together."
More than theological differences, the marriage issue appeared to cross racial lines in a way that benefited Republicans. "No one on either side disputes that the marriage amendment motivated the GOP base," said Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage. But what many analysts missed is the way the issue attracted normally Democratic voters, especially African-Americans. "Our polling found that support for the marriage amendment was highest among African-Americans," Mr. Daniels said. Even more revealing: A CNN exit poll in Ohio showed that Mr. Bush's standing among African-American voters soared from 9 percent to 16 percent specifically because of the marriage amendment.
With passions running high among the GOP's evangelical base plus crossover support from blacks and Hispanics, Mr. Bush collected more than 59 million votes, the most ever for a presidential candidate. He avoided the emotional roller coaster of 2000 by handily winning Florida's 27 electoral votes, then flipped 5 more electoral votes to the Republican column by eking out a 1-point win in New Mexico. Iowa looked poised to flip as well, but Mr. Bush's 13,000-vote advantage could be tested by yet-to-be-counted provisional and absentee ballots. Mr. Kerry managed to steal only tiny New Hampshire from the Republicans, leaving him 18 votes short of his goal in the Electoral College.
But despite the few small-state flip-flops, Ohio seemed to be the only state that really mattered throughout the long, excruciating hours of Election Night. By failing to win any of the big Midwest industrial states, Mr. Bush found himself in the same predicament as his challenger: Neither man could capture the White House without Ohio's 20 electoral votes.
For Republicans, the tension was palpable. In addition to the encouragement of Issue 1, Mr. Bush's political team was spreading the word among reporters that according to their models, the president would carry the Buckeye State. Though a few Ohio voters were still standing in line as late as midnight, Fox News and NBC called the state for Mr. Bush just before 1 a.m. Other news outlets refused to follow suit, and the Kerry campaign insisted that left-leaning Cleveland could still provide the votes to overtake the president's 125,000-vote margin.
Still, the early projection put Mr. Bush at 269 electoral votes-and put Republicans around the country in a celebratory mood. At the Marriott Hotel in Albuquerque, N.M., a 10-piece band played in the corner of the ballroom while GOP revelers attempted to dance the Salsa with varying degrees of success. With 269 votes already in the president's column, everyone in the room hoped New Mexico would be the state to put him over the top. Each time New Mexico's vote counts appeared on Fox News, the crowd stopped what they were doing and broke into cheers of "Viva Bush" or "Four more years."
For hours the cycle of dancing and worrying went on. As more and more precincts reported and Mr. Bush maintained his margin of 12,000 or so votes, the cries of "Viva Bush" faded into chants of "Call it! Call it! Call it!" But the call didn't come-and neither did the concession.
Two time zones and 2,000 miles away, John Edwards finally took the platform at Boston's Copley Plaza with a 60-second announcement for the party faithful who gathered as a cold November night became the day after the voting began. Mr. Kerry was still watching Ohio, he said, and the vote count would go on. "It's been a long night, but we've waited four years for this victory. We can wait one more night."
But the night was already half over-and so were the Democrats' dreams. Several hundred thousand provisional ballots could never overcome the president's margin of 135,000 votes. For Democrats, one more night of waiting gave way to four more years of wandering in the political wilderness.
- with reporting by Priya Abraham in Washington, D.C., and John Dawson in New Mexico