Following President George W. Bush's victory over Senator John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, conservative media rushed to declare that the election was a decisive mandate for Bush's agenda, and mainstream media outlets have followed their lead.
Their pronouncements echo Vice President Dick Cheney's November 3 claim that "President Bush ran forthrightly on a clear agenda for this nation's future and the nation responded by giving him a mandate." But such pronouncements neglect important facts that suggest Bush's narrow victory is far from a decisive endorsement of his agenda:
• With the exception of the 2000 election, Bush's popular vote margin of about 3.6 million votes (out of approximately 115 million total votes cast) was the smallest since 1976, when then-Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter (D) defeated President Gerald R. Ford (R) by about 1.7 million votes.
• Though Bush won more votes -- 59.2 million -- than any presidential candidate in U.S. history, Kerry's vote total -- 55.7 million -- was still greater than any U.S. presidential candidate in history prior to 2004. That means more Americans cast their vote against Bush than against any other presidential candidate in U.S. history.
• As Wall Street Journal Washington editor Albert R. Hunt pointed out (WSJ.com subscription required) on November 4, "It was a GOP sweep, but it also was the narrowest win for a sitting president since Woodrow Wilson in 1916."
• Percentage-wise, Bush's victory was the narrowest for any wartime incumbent president in U.S. history. (For the purpose of this calculation, Media Matters for America counted the following presidential elections as wartime incumbent elections: 1848, 1864, 1900, 1944, and 1972. Popular vote data for 1812 is unavailable.)
• A Gallup poll conducted just after the election found that 63 percent of voters would prefer to see Bush pursue policies that "both parties support" compared to only 30 percent who want Bush to "advance the Republican Party's agenda."
Yet many conservatives in the media ignored or downplayed Bush's extraordinarily narrow margin of victory and the unprecedented number of voters who expressed opposition to Bush's agenda by voting for Kerry:
• The Wall Street Journal: "The voters did [decide the election] -- including millions of conservative first-timers whom the exit polls and media missed -- emerging from the pews and exurban driveways to give President Bush what by any measure is a decisive mandate for a second term. ... Just because an election is close doesn't mean it isn't decisive. ... We do already know ... that Mr. Bush has been given the kind of mandate that few politicians are ever fortunate enough to receive." [Wall Street Journal editorial, "The Bush Mandate," 11/4/04]
• William J. Bennett, conservative author and nationally syndicated radio host: "Having restored decency to the White House, President Bush now has a mandate to affect policy that will promote a more decent society, through both politics and law. His supporters want that, and have given him a mandate in their popular and electoral votes to see to it." [National Review Online, "The Great Relearning," 11/3/04]
• CNN host Tucker Carlson, co-host of CNN's Crossfire: "[N]obody has done it since 1988. The president wins reelection with a majority of the vote. It is a mandate. What will he do with it now? [CNN, Crossfire, 11/3/04]
• The New York Sun: "[I]t was hard, at 3:35 a.m., when these words were written, to see much point to the quest that Senator Kerry has undertaken in Ohio other than to indulge a certain kind of bitterness, to poison American politics for the coming term, and to seek to dilute the extraordinary mandate Mr. Bush, if not yet in the Electoral College, has received among Americans from coast to coast." [The New York Sun editorial, "The Popular Vote," 11/3/04]
• Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal contributing editor: "He [Bush] has, I would argue, a mandate now. You can bet he's going forward boldly. He announced it today in his victory speech. He said, 'Honey, I'm not just going to lower your taxes. I am transforming the tax system.'" [FOX News Channel, Hannity & Colmes, 11/3/04]
• Pat Buchanan, MSNBC political analyst: "There's no doubt about it, this was a vote against, by the red-state folks who gave the victory to George Bush, it was a rejection of blue-state America. It was a rejection of their values, their attacks on the president. ... And the idea, it seems to me, that somehow the folks who won should now surrender part of whatever mandate they have to the folks who lost -- I can tell you, what we're hearing on this panel, people out there in red-state America are finding it very offensive." [MSNBC, Hardball with Chris Matthews, 11/3/04]
• William Kristol, Weekly Standard executive editor: "The hair-pullers and teeth-gnashers won't like it, of course, but we're nevertheless inclined to call this a Mandate. Indeed, in one sense, we think it an even larger and clearer mandate than those won in the landslide reelection campaigns of Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1984, and Clinton in 1996." [The Weekly Standard, "Misunderestimated," 11/15/04 issue]
Mainstream media outlets followed conservatives' lead in trumpeting Bush's narrow victory as a mandate:
• Tony Karon, TIME magazine columnist and senior editor: "George W. Bush took the reins of power with the confidence and certainty of one who had carried a landslide mandate to implement his own agenda. This time, of course, his claim of a popular mandate is incontrovertible. His party has strengthened its grip on both branches of the legislature, and freed of any first-term restraints that might be thrown up by reelection concerns, President George W. Bush is well positioned to even more vigorously pursue his agenda." [TIME, "Victorious Bush Reaches Out," 11/3/04]
• Dan Chapman, Atlanta Journal-Constitution global economics and business reporter: "Bush, buoyed by a popular mandate and a more Republican Congress, will probably receive the financial and military wherewithal to fight the insurgency and rebuild Iraq." [Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Bush gets voters' nod on Iraq, but outlook risky," 11/4/04]
• Keith Miller, NBC News correspondent: "Bush, who won by more than three and a half million votes, has a solid mandate that will force the attention of America's enemies and allies." [NBC Nightly News, 11/3/04]
• Rafael Lorente, Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL) Washington bureau: "Americans not only gave President Bush a mandate, they also gave him the necessary tools in the form of more Republican House and Senate colleagues to push through his conservative agenda." [Sun-Sentinel, "Bush now has the tools to energize his priority programs," 11/4/04, syndicated by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services]
• Doyle McManus and Janet Hook, Los Angeles Times staff writers: "Four years ago, George W. Bush won his first term with fewer votes than his opponent, but governed as if the nation had granted him a clear mandate to pursue conservative policies. This time, Bush can claim a solid mandate of 51% of the vote, which made him the first presidential candidate to win a clear majority since 1988 -- a point Bush aides made repeatedly Wednesday." [Los Angeles Times, "Majority Win Could Make Second Term More Partisan," 11/4/04]