How could a decorated war hero, experienced senator and outstanding debater lose a presidential race that turned largely on national security issues to an incumbent who during his first term badly miscalculated both the urgency of the main war he pursued and the way to win the peace? And given some of the harsh realities now facing the U.S. armed services, particularly the protracted and dangerous deployment to Iraq, how did Republicans find their most loyal demographic not among the Bible Belt voters of the South and West or the wealthy businessmen along the coasts, but rather among U.S. military members and a large percentage of the more than 25 million veterans? Answering these questions is critical to the Democratic Party's prospects as it looks ahead to elections in 2006 and 2008. The Democratic Party must re-establish its national security bona fides among key constituencies if it hopes to win back the White House or Congress.
National security rightly emerged as the predominant issue of the 2004 election. Some 34 percent of the electorate cited either Iraq or the War on Terror as the policy issue of greatest concern, a significant jump from the 12 percent that cited "world affairs" in 2000. Among that 34 percent, 60 percent favored President Bush, with an overwhelming 86 percent of those most worried about terrorism favoring the incumbent. In the electorate at large, about 58 percent said they most trusted President Bush to wage the War on Terror effectively, to Senator Kerry's 40 percent.
All of this is despite the fact that in nominating Senator Kerry, Democrats believed they were offering the country a viable alternative to a president who misdiagnosed the Iraqi threat, went to war with a weak coalition and failed to plan properly for the aftermath of invasion.