The United States presidential election of 2004 was the United States' 55th quadrennial presidential election. It was held on Tuesday, November 2, 2004. Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts defeated incumbent President George W. Bush. Foreign policy was the dominant theme throughout the election campaign, particularly Bush's conduct of the War on Terrorism and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
As in the 2000 presidential election, voting controversies and concerns of irregularities emerged during and after the vote. Though the winner was decided on election night, recounts persisted until Bush accepted Kerry's victory in Ohio. The state held enough electoral votes to determine the winner of the presidency.
Only four states changed allegiance. New Mexico and Iowa voted Democratic in 2000, but voted Republican in 2004. New Hampshire and Ohio voted Republican in 2000 but voted Democratic in 2004. In the Electoral College, Kerry received 272 votes, and Bush 266.
George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 after the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore remanded the case to the Florida Supreme Court, which declared there was not sufficient time to hold a recount without violating the U.S. Constitution.
Just eight months into his presidency, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 suddenly transformed Bush into a wartime president. Bush's approval ratings surged to near 90%. Within a month, the forces of a coalition led by the United States invaded Afghanistan, which had been sheltering Osama bin Laden, suspected mastermind of the September 11 attacks. By December, the Taliban had been removed as rulers of Kabul, although a long and ongoing occupation would follow.
The Bush administration then turned its attention to Iraq, and argued the need to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq had become urgent. Among the stated reasons were that Saddam's regime had tried to acquire nuclear material and had not properly accounted for biological and chemical material it was known to have previously possessed. Both the possession of these weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the failure to account for them, violated the U.N. sanctions. The assertions about WMD were hotly debated from the beginning, and their basis in U.S.military intelligence undermined by the subsequent failure to find any WMD in Iraq. This situation escalated to the point that a coalition of about forty nations, including the United States, invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003. Within about three weeks, the invasion caused the collapse of both the Iraqi government and its armed forces. On May 1, George W. Bush landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, in a Lockheed S-3 Viking, where he gave a speech announcing the end of major combat operations in the Iraq war. Bush's approval rating in May was at 66%, according to a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll. However, Bush's high approval ratings did not last. First, while the war itself was popular in the U.S., the occupation lost support as months passed and casualty figures increased, with no decrease in violence nor progress toward stability or reconstruction in Iraq. Second, as investigators combed through the country, they failed to find the predicted WMD stockpiles, which led to debate over the rationale for the war.
- President George W. Bush
Bush's popularity as a wartime president helped consolidate his base, and ward off any serious challenge to the nomination. Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island considered challenging Bush on an anti-war platform in New Hampshire, but decided not to run after the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003.
On March 10, 2004, Bush officially clinched the number of delegates needed to be nominated at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. Bush accepted the nomination on September 2, 2004, and selected Vice President Dick Cheney as his running mate. (In New York, the ticket was also on the ballot as candidates of the Conservative Party of New York State). During the convention and throughout the campaign, Bush focused on two themes: defending America against terrorism and building an ownership society. The ownership society included allowing people to invest some of their Social Security in the stock market, increasing home and stock ownership, and encouraging more people to buy their own health insurance.
- Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts
- Senator John Edwards of North Carolina
- Governor Howard Dean of Vermont
- General Wesley Clark of Arkansas
- Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio
- Reverend Al Sharpton of New York
- Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut
- Former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri
- Former Senator Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois
- Senator Bob Graham of Florida
Before The Primaries
By summer of 2003, Howard Dean had become the apparent front runner for the Democratic nomination, performing strongly in most polls and leading the pack with the largest campaign war chest. Dean's strength as a fund raiser was attributed mainly to his embrace of the Internet for campaigning. The majority of his donations came from individual supporters, who became known as Deanites, or, more commonly, Deaniacs. Generally regarded as a pragmatic centrist during his time as governor, Dean emerged during his presidential campaign as a left-wing populist, denouncing the policies of the Bush administration (especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq) as well as fellow Democrats, who, in his view, failed to strongly oppose them. Senator Lieberman, a liberal on domestic issues but a hawk on the War on Terror, failed to gain traction with liberal Democratic primary voters.
In September 2003, retired four-star general Wesley Clark announced his intention to run in the presidential primary election for the Democratic Party nomination. His campaign focused on themes of leadership and patriotism; early campaign ads relied heavily on biography. His late start left him with relatively few detailed policy proposals. This weakness was apparent in his first few debates, although he soon presented a range of position papers, including a major tax-relief plan. Nevertheless, many Democrats did not flock to his campaign.
In sheer numbers, Kerry had fewer endorsements than Howard Dean, who was far ahead in the superdelegate race going into the Iowa caucuses in January 2004, although Kerry led the endorsement race in Iowa, New Hampshire, Arizona, South Carolina, New Mexico and Nevada. Kerry's main perceived weakness was in his neighboring state of New Hampshire and nearly all national polls. Most other states did not have updated polling numbers to give an accurate placing for the Kerry campaign before Iowa. Heading into the primaries, Kerry's campaign was largely seen as in trouble, particularly after he fired campaign manager Jim Jordan. The key factors enabling it to survive was when fellow Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy assigned Mary Beth Cahill to be the campaign manager, as well as Kerry's mortgaging his own home to lend the money to his campaign (while his wife was a billionaire, campaign finance rules prohibited using one's personal fortune). He also brought on the "magical" Michael Whouley who would be credited with helping bring home the Iowa victory the same as he did in New Hampshire for Al Gore in 2000 against Bill Bradley.
By the January 2004 Iowa caucuses, the field had dwindled down to nine candidates, as Bob Graham dropped out of the race and Howard Dean was a strong front-runner. However, the Iowa caucuses yielded unexpectedly strong results for Democratic candidates John Kerry, who earned 38% of the state's delegates and John Edwards, who took 32%. Former front-runner Howard Dean slipped to 18% and third place, and Richard Gephardt finished fourth (11%). In the days leading up to the Iowa vote, there was much negative campaigning between the Dean and Gephardt camps.
The dismal results caused Gephardt to drop out and later endorse Kerry. What further hurt Dean was a speech he gave at a post-caucus rally. Dean was shouting over the cheers of his enthusiastic audience, but the crowd noise was being filtered out by his unidirectional microphone, leaving only his full-throated exhortations audible to the television viewers. To those at home, he seemed to raise his voice out of sheer emotion. The incessant replaying of the "Dean Scream" by the press became a debate on the topic of whether Dean was the victim of media bias. The scream scene was shown approximately 633 times by cable and broadcast news networks in just four days following the incident, a number that does not include talk shows and local news broadcasts. However, those who were in the actual audience that day insist that they were not aware of the infamous "scream" until they returned to their hotel rooms and saw it on TV.
Kerry, on the other hand, had revived his campaign and began using the slogan "Comeback Kerry."
New Hampshire Primary
On January 27, Kerry triumphed again, winning the New Hampshire primary. Dean finished second, Clark was third, and Edwards placed fourth. The largest of the debates was held at Saint Anselm College where both Kerry and Dean had strong performances.
The following week, John Edwards won the South Carolina primary and finished a strong second in Oklahoma. After Howard Dean's withdrawal from the contest, Edwards became the only major challenger to Kerry for the Democratic nomination. However, Kerry continued to dominate and his support quickly snowballed as he won caucuses and primaries, taking in a string of wins in Michigan, Washington, Maine, Tennessee, Washington, D.C., Nevada, Wisconsin, Utah, Hawaii, and Idaho. Clark and Lieberman dropped out during this time, leaving only Sharpton, Kucinich, and Edwards in the running against Kerry.
In March's Super Tuesday, Kerry won decisive victories in the California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Rhode Island primaries and the Minnesota caucuses. Dean, despite having withdrawn from the race two weeks earlier, won his home state of Vermont. Edwards finished only slightly behind Kerry in Georgia, but, failing to win a single state other than South Carolina, chose to withdraw from the presidential race.
Democratic National Convention
On July 6, John Kerry selected John Edwards as his running mate, shortly before the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts, held later that month. Days before Kerry announced Edwards as his running mate, Kerry gave a short list of three candidates: Sen John Edwards, Rep Dick Gephardt, and Gov Tom Vilsack. Heading into the convention, the Kerry/Edwards ticket unveiled their new slogan—a promise to make America "stronger at home and more respected in the world." Kerry made his Vietnam War experience the prominent theme of the convention. In accepting the nomination, he began his speech with, "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty." He later delivered what may have been the speech's most memorable line when he said, "the future doesn't belong to fear, it belongs to freedom," a quote that later appeared in a Kerry/Edwards television advertisement.
There were four other pairs of candidates who were on the ballot in states with enough electoral votes to have a theoretical chance of winning a majority in the Electoral College.
- Ralph Nader/Peter Camejo, independent (also Reform Party, Independent Party of Delaware, Populist Party, Better Life Party, Cross-endorsements N.Y. , Peace and Justice Party Independence Party of New York, Independence Party S.C.. Nader was also endorsed by the Vermont Green Party who chose not to ratify the national party’s presidential nominee. Nader details by state
- Michael Badnarik/Richard Campagna, Libertarian Party
- Michael Peroutka/Chuck Baldwin, Constitution Party (also Alaskan Independence Party)
- David Cobb/Pat LaMarche, Green Party
General Election Campaign
Bush focused his campaign on national security, presenting himself as a decisive leader and contrasted Kerry as a "flip-flopper." Bush's point was that Americans could trust him to be tough on terrorism while Kerry would be "uncertain in the face of danger." Bush also sought to portray Kerry as a "Massachusetts liberal" who was out of touch with mainstream Americans. One of Kerry's slogans was "Stronger at home, respected in the world." This advanced the suggestion that Kerry would pay more attention to domestic concerns; it also encapsulated Kerry's contention that Bush had alienated American allies by his foreign policy.
According to one exit poll, people who voted for Bush cited the issues of terrorism and moral values as the most important factors in their decision. Kerry supporters cited the war in Iraq, the economy and jobs, and health care.
Over the course of Bush's first term in office, his extremely high approval ratings immediately following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks steadily dwindled, peaking only during combat operations in Iraq in the spring of 2003, and again following the capture of Saddam Hussein in December the same year. Kerry supporters attempted to capitalize on the dwindling popularity to rally anti-war sentiment.
In March 2004, the Bush/Cheney campaign was criticized by 2004 Racism Watch. The organization took offense to a campaign ad, which showed a man who was possibly Middle Eastern in a negative light. 2004 Racism Watch issued a press release calling on the campaign to pull the ad, calling it disturbing and offensive.
During August and September 2004, there was an intense focus on events that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Bush was accused of failing to fulfill his required service in the Texas Air National Guard. However, the focus quickly shifted to the conduct of CBS News after they aired a segment on 60 Minutes Wednesday introducing what became known as the Killian documents. Serious doubts about the documents' authenticity quickly emerged, leading CBS to appoint a review panel that eventually resulted in the firing of the news producer and other significant staffing changes.
Meanwhile, Kerry was accused by the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, who averred that "phony war crimes charges, his exaggerated claims about his own service in Vietnam, and his deliberate misrepresentation of the nature and effectiveness of Swift boat operations compels us to step forward." The group challenged the legitimacy of each of the combat medals awarded to Kerry by the U.S. Navy, and the disposition of his discharge.
In the beginning of September, the successful Republican National Convention along with the allegations by Kerry's former mates gave Bush his first comfortable margin since Kerry had won the nomination. A post-convention Gallup poll showed the President leading the Senator by 14 points.
Three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate were organized by the Commission on Presidential Debates, and held in the autumn of 2004. As expected, these debates set the agenda for the final leg of the political contest. Libertarian Party candidate Michael Badnarik and Green Party candidate David Cobb were arrested while trying to access the debates. Badnarik was attempting to serve papers to the Commission on Presidential Debates.
The first debate was held on September 30 at the University of Miami, moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS. During the debate, slated to focus on foreign policy, Kerry accused Bush of having failed to gain international support for the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, saying the only countries assisting the USA during the invasion were the United Kingdom and Australia. Bush replied to this by saying, "Well, actually, he forgot Poland" (in an ironic turn of events, Poland announced plans to withdraw its troops from Iraq shortly after the debate). Later, a consensus formed among mainstream pollsters and pundits that Kerry won the debate decisively, strengthening what had come to be seen as a weak and troubled campaign. In the days after, coverage focused on Bush's apparent annoyance with Kerry and numerous scowls and negative facial expressions. On October 5, the Vice Presidential debate was held between Dick Cheney and John Edwards at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and was moderated by Gwen Ifill of PBS. An initial poll by ABC indicated a victory for Cheney, while polls by CNN and MSNBC gave it to Edwards
The second presidential debate was held at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 8, moderated by Charles Gibson of ABC. Conducted in a "town meeting" format, less formal than the first Presidential debate, this debate saw Bush and Kerry taking questions on a variety of subjects from a local audience. Bush attempted to deflect criticism of what was described as his scowling demeanor during the first debate, joking at one point about one of Kerry's remarks, "That answer made me want to scowl." Bush and Kerry met for the third and final debate at Arizona State University on October 13. 51 million viewers watched the debate which was moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News. However, at the time of the ASU debate, there were 15.2 million viewers tuned in to watch the Major League Baseball playoffs broadcast simultaneously.
With the exceptions of Florida and North Carolina, Bush carried the Southern states by comfortable margins and also secured wins in Indiana, most of the rural Midwestern farming states, most of the Rocky Mountain states, and Alaska. Kerry balanced Bush by sweeping the Northeastern United States, most of the Upper Midwest, and all of the Pacific Coast states of Washington, Oregon, and California, and carried Hawaii, as well.
As the night wore on, the returns in a handful of small-to-medium sized states, including Wisconsin and Iowa, were extremely close; however it was the state of Ohio that would make clear the winner of the election. As the final national results were tallied Bush had clearly won a total of 266 electoral votes, while Kerry had won 252 votes. 270 votes were needed to win. It was Ohio (20 electoral votes), however, that the news media focused their attention on. Mathematically, Ohio's 20 electoral votes became the key to an election win for either candidate.
At 1:37 PM EST all major networks except Fox called the state of Ohio and the election for Kerry.
Following projected defeat in Ohio the Bush/Cheney campaign refused to concede, instead requesting a recount throughout Ohio and much of the close states.
Over the course of the following week hand recounts were put into effect across Ohio,Iowa and New Hampshire on order to validate the final result. On November 10 the recount had been completed, thus confirming Kerry's victory in the election. Bush's concession speech soon followed.