Why Kerry Lost the Popular Vote: BLUE State Turnout

In the aftermath of the 2004 election, there was a great buzz in the media about the efforts of Rove and the GOP to turnout religious conservative voters and Bush’s inraods into traditional Democratic areas like urban, Jewish, and minority voters. It appeared Bush had pulled off a great victory by increasing his base AND appealing to Democratic groups.

The GOP did do a superb job of increasing its base turnout. According to non-partisan analyst Charlie Cook, turnout increased 14.9 percent in the traditional Republican “red” states. The rest of the post-election claims are less based in reality. Initially it was reported Kerry had only won 55% of the Hispanic vote, 7% less than Gore. Re-evaluation by Hispanic analysts at the William C. Velasquez Institute discovered that the Hispanic polls were out of whack. In Texas for example, it was initially reported that Bush won Texas Hispanic voters 51%-49%. Actually Kerry won Hispanic Texans 59%-41%. Kerry won 64% of the Hispanic vote, 2% more than Gore, while Bush’s 35% of Hispanics was the same as in 2004.

Kerry’s 88% of the black vote was very close to Gore’s 90%, and higher than Clinton’s in 1992 and 1996. Contrary to initial reports, Kerry did not get 5% less of the Jewish vote than Gore, in fact his 80% of the Jewish vote was 1% more than Gore and equal to Clinton’s 1996 total, while Kerry’s 58% among Asians was better than both Clinton and Gore. Kerry’s totals among urban voters was at least 60%, 10% less than Gore, but still around the Democratic average post-WWII. Given the upward revisions of Kerry’s totals among Hispanics and Jews, it was probably higher than 60%.

Most important, while turnout in the “tossup” states was up a whopping 17.3% over 2000, Kerry actually WON the popular vote in the tossup states but didn’t proportion it out correctly, i.e. it would’ve been better to have lost Florida by a wider margin and transferred 100,000 or so votes to say, Ohio. Kerry also won independent voters 49%-48% (a better percent than Clinton or Gore) and won self-proclaimed “moderate” voters 54%-45%.

So where did we go wrong? Well, for one thing Kerry only won women voters by 3%, where Gore won them by 11%. Cook blames this on Kerry not talking about the economy more, and criticizes Kerry for criticizing Bush over the missing cache of weapons in Iraq the last week of the camapign rather than talk about the economy. Of course, Kerry won 75% among voters among voters who rated the economy/jobs as the most important issue in exit polls. Had Kerry neglected defense, we’d probably be hearing about Kerry’s ignoring “terrorism” and “not living in the post-9/11 world” and forgetting about “security moms.” Well, at least Cook didn’t claim that Bush won because voters thought he had a superior economic plan.

But the biggest shock and what hurt us most: Turnout in the “blue” states was only up 1.9% over 2000. Sure it’s important to win swing voters and make inroads into traditional GOP areas (e.g. rural areas, where Kerry’s 40% of the vote was 3% better than Gore). Dems did a good job in increasing turnout in swing areas (but can always improve here, as the GOP will try to improve).

Still, given that there are GOP Senators in blue states like Pa., NH, Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, and RI, and GOP governors in states as blue as NY, Ct., Vt., California, Hawaii, and (my homestate) Maryland, doesn’t it behoove the Democrats to sharpen the turnout machine in states that already favor them? The percent of eligible voters who voted in Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia was never higher than it was in 2004, even though there was little to no chance of Bush losing these states. Why can”t the same be true in states there was no chance for Kerry to lose? Given the fact that most very populous states (i.e California, NY, NJ, Illinois, Mass., Pa., Mich. ) are either solid blue or at least blue leaning, this lack of turnout probably cost Kerry the popular vote. No states with 15 or more electoral votes are real red states except for Texas, NC, and Georgia (59 EVs). Meanwhile California, Pa., Illinois, Michigan, and NY (145 EVs) are either blue or blue leaning and have 15 or more EVs. Ohio and Florida (47 EVs)were the only swing states with 15 or more EVs that Bush won.

I can’t prove this beyond a reasonable doubt, but if turnout is up big time in blue states come 2006 like it was in red states in 2004, won’t Dem numbers in Congress and among governors be a helluva lot better? Had turnout been up in blue states, might Bush be the only two-term president to never win the popular vote?

The Cook lecture can be seen here.

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About Nick

Teacher of Social Studies. Born in the 1970s. History major, music minor. Big Baseball fan. Economic progressive.
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19 Responses to Why Kerry Lost the Popular Vote: BLUE State Turnout

  1. Mass says:


    This is an excellent analysis.

  2. Yes, another very good one Nick.


  3. Ron Chusid says:


    I did see comments post election suggesting in the future that Democrats should work for a higher turn out in their safe states. While it wouldn’t have changed the outcome, if Kerry had won the popular vote it would have reduced the feeling that Democrats are in the minority. It also would have made it easier to contest any given state if he had won the popular vote.

  4. Ron

    I agree. Even in the Blue states we need to push for a higher turn out. The Republicans have proven to be great mobilizers. What ever it takes to get people out we’ve got to find the models and the methods.

  5. Nick says:

    Oops, should’ve been Kerry won 40% of the rural vote, 3% more than Gore.

  6. florida dem says:

    Nick, you bring up a good point about better organization in the blue states to encourage higher turn out. I think there are some residents in safe blue states who may not feel the need to vote if they know which way the state will go ahead of time. Plus, you do have ulta-liberals in blue states who, unless a hardcore leftist is nominated won’t vote, or they like to keep there street cred by voting counter culture. I think the reason there wasn’t a greater push in blue states in 04 is because they were deemed “safe.” Just like ShrubCo didn’t spend much time in safe red states like Georgia and Nebraska, JK didn’t spend much time in Rhode Island and Maryland. It’s tough to run a true 50 state campaign. And unless something majorly changes the Repub and Dem nominees will be slugging it out in the same swing states in 08.

  7. Nick

    Which line? I’ll fix it…

  8. Nick

    I see it! Fixing now!

  9. Florida Dem

    Unfortunately we saw some of the ultra liberal effect here in L.A. The weekend after the election I was at a meeting after the weekly anti-war rally and one guy proudly announced he voted Green. My reaction was not pretty.

  10. Nick says:

    Florida Dem,

    I agree with you COMPLETELY, especially about the street cred. I just wish these liberal folks would see how their vote really counts now matter how safe their state is. I normally don’t advocate lying, but if these folks are so concerned about their street cred, why don’t they vote for a non-hard core leftist and just tell their hard-core leftist they didn’t vote or that they wrote in a hard-core leftist in protest? These folks have heard about the “secret ballot” right? As corrupt as the Bush Justice Department is, I don’t think exposing hard-core lefties lying to their friends is at the top of their priority list.
    Just speculating here, but I think maybe one reason red staters get it about voting is that even if they acknolwedge the GOP will carry their state, many conservative red staters believe liberals are really in charge, or believe that a liberal resurgence is right around the corner and see conservatives as people who “share their values” and are embattled by liberals.
    As for liberals, no matter how anybody feels about the goings on in Florida in 2000, the whole liberal whining about “my vote doesn’t count” needs to stop. Sure liberals should fight to make sure the Dems are a generally liberal party, and some nominees are so much like the GOP that any liberal with principles should vote 3rd party, would you vote Dem if they nominated Zell Miller for president? If not for the growth of the populist party in the 1890s, the Dems might never have become populist.
    Still if someone can vote and chooses not to vote for whatever reason, they can’t complain. I may not agree with the choice red staters make (and I find many of their voting decisions frightening), but I gotta give them props for at least getting off their duff and voting.

  11. Marjorie G says:

    Dems generally feel so superior about their positions that they don’t have to work. Their thoughts and words alone will create a great wash of supporters to the polls. Sure.

    I was John Kerry Brooklyn, and their well-considered five minutes of volunteerism were two bus trips to Philly. Couldn’t keep them down on the farm, and Brooklyn is huge and diverse. We really don’t have a Dem organization in NY. It’s a myth. Why else all our GOP mayors.

  12. Nick says:

    Marjorie G

    I know exactly what you mean. Its one thing to feel you have the superior positition, but you still have to convince others your right. No you won’t convince everybody, and some are easier to persuade than others, but you can’t expect everyone to just follow you automatically. Imagine if Ghandi had thought his position on Indian independence from Britain was superior but couldn’t convince anybody he was right, India might still be under British rule.
    Fortunately, if there’s one constant in American politics, it’s that overconfidence in parties brings trouble to the overconfident, regardless of ideology. Many GOPers, even with the declining polls numbers, seem to still suffer from this. Let’s hope they keep it up.

  13. Marjorie

    I was contacted by people at the DLCC after I posted JK’s speech from their event. I think supporting them is good starting point for local org’s. I hope people will recognize that. Our new Mayor – Antonio, came from the State legislature.

  14. kj says:

    I was hoping Margorie G would weigh in on this topic… Nick, and everyone, FYI, Marjorie spent an enormous amount of time and energy during the campaign working in a solid blue area to get out the vote, not once assuming because her area was ‘safe’ that she would let up on the efforts to turn out the voters. She is my hero. 😉

    As for Nick’s comment above, “Just speculating here, but I think maybe one reason red staters get it about voting is that even if they acknolwedge the GOP will carry their state, many conservative red staters believe liberals are really in charge, or believe that a liberal resurgence is right around the corner and see conservatives as people who “share their values” and are embattled by liberals.”

    I gotta say, that’s the way I see/feel it here in rural red. Liberals are the “other,” the enemy, who are responsible for every too-short skirt their daughters want to wear and every off-beat thought their son expresses. Liberals are the scapegoat, period.

  15. Nick says:


    More great feedback from a blue person living in rural red. Thanks, I (and I’m sure many folks here) appreciate it.
    Marjorie, if your out there let me just say you go girl. You went against the grain and made sure blue voters voted, no matter how “safe” your area supposedly was. Excellent job.

  16. Todd says:


    You’re exactly right…as a “blue man group” living in the middle of a sea of red (necks, here in Georgia), I can attest. You’d think Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and “them damn liberals” were “runnin’ the country”. It’s like a massive ideological time warp. The fact that *they* the conservatives have been in power over a decade seems lost on *conservatives*, but that’s what keeps them coming out of the woodwork like so many termites every other November.

  17. KJ, Todd

    I’m so insulated here in the Liberal bastion of Hollywoodland. I can’t imagine living in conservativeville… ever…

    We need to find a way to overpower those termites.

  18. Marjorie G says:

    I just get so upset about the Kerry not energizing our base. One candidate and one campaign, and no favorable press, all manipulated by fear and hate. How can anyone not realize our own press saying we don’t stand for anything.

    All I hear is Kerry is the last election, and no cutting of slack for what we faced or accomplished.

    Not happy.

  19. Indie Liberal says:

    Me meither (mad).