Posted on September 06, 2004 in Washington Watch

For many months now, my brother, John Zogby, has been calling this year’s presidential contest the “Armageddon election.” Both sides, Republicans and Democrats, he has written, “are acting as if a loss will mean the end of the world as we know it.”

The partisan split is real and deep, the rhetoric is harsh and the electorate appears to be as divided as the candidates.

This was in evidence at last week’s Republican Convention. As thousands of Republican faithful gathered in Madison Square Garden behind well fortified police lines, to cheer for President Bush and warn of the dangers of a Kerry presidency, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched near the Convention displaying their anger at President Bush and voicing dire concern about the fate of the world, should he be reelected.

With the Republican convention Completed and as we now approach the post-Labor Day traditional start of the electoral season, it is useful to keep this dynamic in mind.

On many major domestic and foreign policy issues, President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry, present voters with real choices. For example, while Bush and his supporters argue that his strong and decisive leadership has made America more secure, Kerry responds that Bush’s ideological unilateralism has cost the US the support of allies, thus making the nation less secure.

Similarly, the Administration maintains that if across the board tax cuts have strengthened the economy and stimulated job growth, Democrats counter that the cuts have merely produced a windfall to the very rich creating costly deficits putting needed social spending at risk. Campaign rhetoric and advertising efforts have emphasized these differences. For Republicans, Kerry is a “flip-flopper,” too inconsistent and weak to be trusted with leadership in time of war. Vice President Cheney has, for example, harshly criticized Kerry saying that he “lacks deeply held convictions about right and wrong” and that “voters would make a grave mistake if they replaced President Bush.”

For Democrats, on the other hand, Bush lied the nation into Iraq without international support and proper post-war planning calling into question his stewardship of the nation’s economy and the war on terror.

Last month, Kerry’s outspoken wife said that if Bush were re-elected the US would get “four more years of hell.” A labor leader echoed her remarks saying, “Bush has been a disaster for our country.”

The “official” campaigns have been augmented by even more divisive efforts, like the swift boat controversy, that have inflamed passions on both sides. To some degree the dynamics of this campaign are being as much defined as Michael Moore vs. Rush Limbaugh and Fox News as they are by the candidates themselves.

In past elections, Democrats and Republicans, after securing their core supporters, have focused on undecided voters in the center of the political spectrum. It was this logic that produced Clinton’s “third way” and New Democrat philosophy or George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” But this year, the entire thrust of the campaign appears to be quite different.

The anger of the 2000 election has not subsided. The electorate appears to be as intense and divided today as it was in the weeks after November 2000. The result: the polls are showing that almost 90% of voters have already made up their minds and are split right down the middle.

While Republicans attempted to make much out of Kerry’s “failure” to score a significant gain coming out the Democratic convention, no thoughtful analyst expected a substantial movement in the polls for either candidate. There are simply too few undecided voters to swing either way. Therefore, instead of the Democratic convention giving Kerry a big boost in the polls, it merely provided him with the opportunity to strengthen his hold over the Democratic faithful while inoculating himself against expected Republican attacks that would seek to depict him as a “weak liberal.” Similarly, the Republican convention can be expected to focus not on winning over moderate Democrats and Independents, but on playing to the committed Republican faithful and focusing on Bush’s leadership in the war on terror.

Both campaigns are focused on reinforcing and energizing their core support groups. The Republicans are appealing to religious conservatives and national security hawks, while Democrats are reaching out to union members, African Americans, Hispanics, women, and social liberals. It is a campaign, as John Zogby notes, which features “a battle between two distinct Americas, and unlike any other time in recent past, the so-called ‘vital center’ seems to be missing.”

A few decades ago there were those who criticized the blurring of the lines between the two parties. They called for realignment-a redefinition of party politics that would give voters real choices and a real debate on domestic and foreign policy issues. It was this “blurring” that spurred strong independent candidacies on the right and left. This year’s polls, however, suggest that the independent candidate on the right and the left will not be able to muster more than a few percentage points in the overall poll.

Now not all Democrats and Republicans are satisfied with 2004’s version of realignment. Some socially conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans feel abandoned by their parties on some key issues. And other groups, for example Arab Americans, are deeply troubled by the lack of substantive debate on key issues, in this case the Middle East. Nevertheless, for better or worse, this year’s contest is shaping up to be a real battle of competing visions on the role of government in providing for “the general welfare” and on the way America conducts itself in world affairs. The stakes are as high as they have ever been with both sides questioning not only the policies and capabilities of the other side, but their very legitimacy itself. John’s “Armageddon” metaphor is an appropriate one.

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