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What Got So Many Counties To Go Red From Blue In '04?
By Jill Lawrence and Susan Page, USA TODAY
31 January 2005
When President Bush delivers his State of the Union address Wednesday, he'll survey a Capitol Hill landscape that reflects the heartland he won on Election Day.
He says his victory vindicates his decision to go to war with Iraq and gives him a mandate for his domestic plans, topped by transforming part of Social Security into private or personal investment accounts.
But that's not what drew voters to Bush in four counties that tipped Republican last year. In dozens of interviews with voters in Florida, Michigan, Missouri and New Jersey, no Bush voter mentioned Social Security. Many who cited Iraq as their reason for supporting him also said they oppose the war or have concerns about his conduct of it.
Still, across the nation, the shift was striking: 153 counties that voted Democratic for president in 1996 and 2000 chose Bush in 2004; only 11 chose Democrat John Kerry after voting Republican in 1996 and 2000.
Why the surge to Bush? What does it mean for his second-term plans and Republicans who would like to succeed him? Are these four counties each next to a county that switched to the GOP four years earlier evidence of spreading Republican dominance?
As Bush lays out an ambitious agenda, here are five reasons he won, and what people say about why they voted to re-elect him:
1. A wartime president
Voters were drawn to Bush by memories of the 9/11 attacks and a reluctance to change leaders in the midst of war. They won't have that option in 2008, when Bush can't run again. But the craving for continuity helped him this time among swing voters and in areas with new voters.
Luis Cintron, 68, a retired school director, moved to Osceola County in central Florida two years ago from Puerto Rico. "I've been in the Army," he says during a break from an outdoor dominoes game with friends. "When we change the leader when the fight is hard, it's not a good idea."
BOONE COUNTY, MO.
Politics: Bush won with 50% in 2004, lost with 48% in 2000. Net increase in votes: 1,375.
Demographics: Estimated 2004 population of 142,604, a growth of 5% since 2000. The county is 85% white, 8% black, 3% Hispanic.*
Economy: University of Missouri flagship campus in Columbia, the county seat, dominates the local economy. But insurance and health care are growing industries. Unemployment rose from 1.2% in 2000 to 2.4% in 2004.
How Republican is it? County has long been controlled by Democrats. But a Republican was elected presiding county commissioner last November and a Republican won one of three state House seats. Republican congressman Kenny Hulshof was easily re-elected. County approved state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, but Columbia also approved use of marijuana for medical reasons.
Local take: "Bushs message obviously resonated more with Boone Countians as a whole. People just like George Bush, and I do think politics is personal. But I also think it is a trend, at least in Missouri." Brad Barondeau, a sales executive and county Republican chairman
Cintron is generally conservative and likely to be a permanent vote for Republicans in his county. But Cathy Harlow, 37, of Ocean, N.J., in Monmouth County, is the type of Bush voter the party can't count on.
A stay-at-home mother with two children, Harlow says she agrees with Kerry on social issues such as abortion rights but voted for Bush because of Iraq. "I wasn't necessarily happy to have Bush go into this war, but I was nervous to change things in the middle of it," she says. "I'm still on the fence. I may very well go Democratic next time."
Steve Bessony, 37, owner of a bike shop and a bistro in downtown Battle Creek, in Calhoun County, Mich., is another Bush voter whose allegiance to the GOP may be temporary. The war and wariness over how the Democratic ticket might treat business prompted his first-time vote for a Republican for president. So is he a Republican now? "Absolutely not."
AFL-CIO official Richard Frantz says post-election calls to 150 union households in Calhoun County found ambivalent support for Bush: "If they had a son or a brother who was actively involved in Iraq, their idea was, 'We had to fully support him.' And then they reluctantly voted for Bush, because they didn't want to change leadership in the midst of a conflict."
2. Who was tough enough?
Democrats were damaged by the perception that the party and its nominees are weak on national security. Years of attempts to counter that image, including the nomination of Vietnam vet and Iraq-war supporter Kerry, did not persuade apprehensive voters. The ads by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacking Kerry took a toll.
"I had absolutely no trust for Kerry, period. I didn't have any faith in his ability to lead us to a reasonable conclusion" in Iraq, says Lance Riska, 47, of Battle Creek. He voted for Bush even though he's been unemployed for six months and calls himself a "dyed-in-the-wool Democrat" on economic issues.
CALHOUN COUNTY, MICH.
Politics: Bush won with 52% in 2004, lost with 49% in 2000. Net increase in votes: 5,802.
Demographics: The population of 138,480 is less than 1% higher than it was in 2000. The county is 84% white, 11% black and 3% Hispanic.*
Economy: Anchored by auto supply manufacturers, health and education workers, food giants Kellogg and Kraft, and the federal government. Unemployment rose from 4.0% in November 2000 to 6.7% in November 2004.
How Republican is it? Moderate Republican Joe Schwarz swept into Congress against a weak opponent. The county re-elected a Republican state House member and voted 60%-40% in favor of a statewide ban on gay marriage. But the new county commission has a 4-3 Democratic majority.
Local take: "All of us recognize we will have to continue to fight in this county. We wont carry the day just because were Republicans. Every cycle will be a dogfight." Gregory Moore, a Republican county commissioner.
In Monmouth County, N.J., the view of the Manhattan skyline is a reminder of the terrorism threat and the dozens of people the county lost in the 9/11 attacks. William Denver, 34, a lawyer and Kerry voter from Middletown, says people who voted for Bush after supporting Al Gore in 2000 told him "they just felt safer with Republicans" after the attacks.
Wendy Katz, 32, of Manalapan, lived in Manhattan at the time of the attacks and says 2004 was the first time she voted for a Republican for president. "Security was the major issue on my mind," she says. "George Bush gets the urgency of dealing with that."
3. Values mattered
Values led some voters to Bush. This bloc was reinforced by ballot initiatives in some states to ban same-sex marriage and restrict abortion, and by the perception that the urban, liberal Kerry might restrict gun-owner rights.
Marie McGee, 50, has been voting for Democrats all her life in Democratic-leaning Boone County, Mo. The hairdresser stuck with Kerry last year, but now wishes she had joined her husband and two sisters in voting for Bush. "It's the abortion and gay marriage" issues for them, she says. Many of her friends who used to be Democrats have switched loyalties, too: "They figure if you're a Christian, you have to vote Republican."
Democrat Ben Miller, chairman of the Calhoun County (Mich.) Commission, was surprised as he campaigned door-to-door to hear even those who had lost their jobs say they would vote for Bush. When he asked why, they would say, " 'Well, I'm against gay marriage and so is he.' 'I'm against abortion and so is he.' "
MONMOUTH COUNTY, N.J.
Politics: Bush won with 55% in 2004, lost with 46% in 2000. Net increase in votes: 42,402.
Demographics: Estimated 2004 population of 638,150, up 4% since 2000. The county is 84% white, 11% black, 3% Hispanic.*
Economy: Many residents commute by bus, train or ferry to New York City. The county includes pricey estates overlooking Lower New York Bay and other homes along the Jersey shore.
How Republican is it? Republicans dominate county and many local elected offices; all five county freeholders are Republican. But ticket-splitting is common. Democratic congressman Frank Pallone was re-elected with 67% of the vote in 2004.
Local take: "When he ran four years ago, Bush had nothing in his background but eight years as governor of Texas, and most people here had never been to Texas. This time, he was an incumbent president at a time of war." - Bill Dowd, attorney and Republican activist
The perception that Democrats want to restrict guns resonated in Missouri and Michigan, despite Kerry's efforts to portray himself as an enthusiastic hunter. Owning guns is "an inalienable right," says Keith Schnarre, a farmer and Republican who beat a Democratic incumbent to become presiding Boone County commissioner last fall. "People feel it's a protection against the government in some future century."
4. 'The move-in people'
Republicans benefited from demographic shifts. These included an influx of 20,000 Hispanics to Osceola County since 2000 and migration of white-collar health and insurance industry workers to Boone County, home of the University of Missouri's flagship campus. In both cases, the newcomers have helped make onetime Democratic strongholds competitive. Schnarre calls them "the move-in people."
The Osceola surge is mostly Puerto Rican. Local political observers say those arriving directly from Puerto Rico, as opposed to New York, were in play but only Republicans went after them.
For four years they went on Hispanic radio shows, held Hispanic recruitment nights, invited Hispanics to hear Republican speakers, and served them Hispanic food. Democrats were hampered by a late start and a hierarchy dominated by old-line Anglos.
When Kerry came to Kissimmee for a campaign stop sponsored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, "some people were upset that it was put on by the Hispanic caucus. We felt the national campaign overplayed their role," says Michael Harford, who became county chairman in December. Still, he sees the need to open up the party. Three Hispanics just moved into top party posts.
OSCEOLA COUNTY, FLA.
Politics: Bush won with 52% in 2004, lost with 47% in 2000. Net increase in votes: 16,901.
Demographics: Explosive growth in the 1990s continues, to 207,559 in 2004, up 20% from 2000. Most newcomers are Hispanics nearly 22,500 in four years. The county is 74% white, 35% Hispanic and 8% black.
Economy: Anchored by Disney World, other recreation and entertainment attractions, hotels and restaurants. Unemployment was 2.8% in November 2000 and 4.5% in November 2004.
How Republican is it? Democrats have an edge in voter registration and won county-wide races for sheriff, public defender and election superviser. But Republicans swept congressional, legislative and county races. A ballot initiative requiring parental notification of a minors abortion passed 72%-28%.
Local take: "Hispanics are growing by leaps and bounds. If you dont reach out to these people and other people do, youre going to lose them." Democrat Peter Oliva, a supervisor at Disney Worlds Animal Kingdom, who lost a county commissioner race by 301 votes.
5. Nuts and bolts
Republicans out-campaigned Democrats. They built better grass-roots organizations, aggressively courted newcomers and sold their candidate to voters with a smart message. Democrats fell short despite Herculean efforts in Boone and some other counties.
In evenly divided Calhoun County, chronic economic woes were overshadowed by an exciting Bush visit and a moderate Republican House candidate so popular that even unions usually the most loyal of Democrats put up lawn signs for him. Kerry did not visit the county. The Democratic candidate for Congress, an organic farmer named Sharon Renier, handed out business cards in a campaign that cost about $5,000.
In Florida, Osceola County Republicans had computerized turnout projections and energized supporters. Democrats reported confusion and miscommunication among local organizers and those from national groups formed to help Kerry. But they also acknowledge they had their own problems such as going into the election with 40 precinct captains rather than the 250 they should have had.
Both parties poured money into ads and other tactics several months before Election Day. "But let's face it," says Florida state Rep. John Quinones, a Puerto Rican Republican re-elected in November, "the grass-roots effort to reach out sticks a lot more."
Contributing: Paul Overberg. Lawrence reported from Osceola County, Fla., and Calhoun County, Mich. Page reported from Boone County, Mo., and Monmouth County, N.J.