A sadness has set in. Throughout my small town in southeastern, Appalachian Ohio, people ask, “How’s it going?” Typically you hear, “Could be better.” Most skulk away after saying this; few need elaboration. Some neighbors can’t bring themselves to tear down their Kerry/Edwards yard signs. There’s even nostalgia for the morning of November 3, when we learned Bush led in our state but that provisional ballots hadn’t been counted. The hope, odd as it seems now, was to become the next Florida. Then the hope died, and it was final. A president who led us into war without planning for the peace and who relished handing money back to the rich was reelected.

Perhaps we should have been better prepared for this. But as with the divide between red and blue states, divisions exist within states. My county (Athens) voted overwhelmingly for Kerry. Though I was calling and visiting voters in outlying, rural regions and sensing that things weren’t going well, so much else needed to be done and worried about. It’s hard to pull yourself out of campaign mode and get a sense of the whole picture. Now’s the time.

The life of a Kerry campaign worker or volunteer in Ohio was a roller coaster. Things went our way, then didn’t. For instance, we registered many new voters. Then Secretary of State Ken Blackwell threatened to discard those registrations recorded on the wrong paper stock. He also threatened to throw out certain provisional ballots. Ralph Nader, left-wing spoiler, was on the ballot, then off. Republican poll challengers-those we worried might harass first-time voters-were allowed in polling stations, then disallowed the day before the election, and then allowed in on Election Day morning. When November 2 rolled around, a flyer circulated in student dormitories. Because of high voter turnout, it proclaimed, Republicans should vote on November 2, Democrats on November 3. Other voters were told their polling location had changed, when it hadn’t. Finally, bad weather hit on Election Day. To paraphrase a sports idiom, this election was a nail biter.

We had done a lot to push Kerry toward victory. Democrats remained extremely unified; the split between “Old” and “New” didn’t surface as it had four years ago. In Ohio, we kept our eyes on the prize-to overcome that 3-percent gap between Bush and Gore that existed in 2000. In the process, we reenergized good old-fashioned politics: door-to-door canvassing, telephone calls to potential voters, and house parties. Throughout all of this, the refrain from participants went: “This is the first time I’ve gotten involved in electoral politics.” When I called on volunteers for a Get Out the Vote campaign, I received too many replies to handle. The Athens County Democratic Party had a waiting list for volunteers on Election Day.

Results were real. Not only could you overhear numerous political conversations during October, but come November 2, people stood in long lines, sometimes waiting up to two hours to vote. Kerry got more votes than any Democratic presidential candidate in the history of Ohio. In Appalachia alone, we got forty thousand more votes than in 2000. The Athens County Democratic Party hoped to deliver fourteen thousand votes for Kerry and got seventeen thousand.

But there were problems. We witnessed an explosion of 527 organizations-including America Coming Together, MoveOn, VoteMob, and the League of Pissed-Off Voters. All had the same mission-to depose Bush-but they could not legally coordinate with the Kerry campaign. When Bush attacked 527s generally in order to avoid condemning the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth advertisements, he missed something. Sure, lots of new organizations opposed Bush, but by law they couldn’t make a positive case for Kerry. On Election Day, I was handing out literature. Too often, I heard from people who hated Bush-on Iraq, the economy, and health care-but who couldn’t figure out what Kerry stood for.

In the end, the hard work of 527s and the Democratic Party wasn’t enough. The Right got out its votes better than we did. They had an immense advantage in Ohio called Issue 1, a ballot initiative against gay marriage. The initiative solved a historical disadvantage on the right. Evangelicals often engage politically but threaten to bolt politics because of broken promises on cultural issues like abortion. Most recently, Thomas Frank has documented this trend in What’s the Matter with Kansas? (Metropolitan Books). Republicans, Frank argues, throw a few bones to the Evangelical Right without delivering the goods. “Values may ‘matter most’ to voters,” he writes, “but they always take a backseat to the needs of money once the elections are won.” Not in the case of Ohio in 2004. The evangelicals got exactly what they wanted: a concrete change in public policy.

Issue 1 defined marriage as “a union between one man and one woman.” But it wasn’t symbolic politics. “This state,” the initiative went on to explain, “shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals.” Meaning, domestic partnership benefits-instituted last year at the University of Ohio, for instance, and applicable to heterosexuals-are now illegal. Even Republican moderates like Governor Bob Taft opposed Issue 1.

To understand how Issue 1 won, you need to know about Phil Burress. Twice-divorced and a native of Cincinnati, Burress was first active campaigning against pornography. He claimed porn had ruined his own life, making his activism seem like a twelve-step program as much as repulsion against the coarsening of American culture. Burress formed Citizens for Community Values (CCV), a group that protested the sex industry in Cincinnati. Turning to the issue of gay marriage, Burress started to tie CCV into national Evangelical networks like Focus on the Family. He raised a lot of money and worked the grassroots to get signatures for Issue 1.

Burress was delighted in February when Bush announced support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. It didn’t hurt that Burress’s prime enemy was the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that had found a state constitutional right to marriage for gays. Recall how Bush labeled Kerry not just a liberal but a Massachusetts liberal. This was coded language targeted at Evangelicals like Burress. The presidential campaign and Issue 1 formed the perfect combination, helping Bush win Ohio.

So, with all of this in mind, could Kerry have won Ohio? Without Issue 1, maybe. This will probably be forgotten as pundits move into Wednesday-morning quarterbacking. William Saletan of Slate suggested Bush won because he was simpler than Kerry. Those on the left, like Arianna Huffington, put blame on Kerry for not opposing the Iraq war vociferously. Democratic Leadership Council types like Mark Penn said Democrats lost swing voters among Hispanics and women. Strategies were quickly drawn up based on the singular case of 2004, but so many of them seem off-base if you live in rural Ohio.

Though Wednesday-morning quarterbacking is always suspect, this is what it looks like from here. Democrats must continue fighting on economic issues and articulate a foreign policy based on humility and realism. They must start honing their own “values.” Not because of political strategy but because Democrats need a politics that people can believe in. They can’t just be against an incumbent, but must be for something. They may never win over a Phil Burress, but they must explain what they believe in to people who haven’t yet made up their minds.

Democrats need to talk more about values like our social obligation toward one another as citizens of an inclusive national community. We need to talk about the importance of pluralism-not just that citizens are different from one another but that America needs to have voices other than business interests dictating our public policy. Democrats need to emphasize that Christian values like sin and humility shouldn’t just prompt questions about abortion or gay marriage but also about the selfishness of tax cuts for the rich and the inequities of American society. Next time around here in Ohio, it would be nice to have a ballot initiative on something like equalizing public school funding, reforming health care, or delivering more services to veterans. Then we could show that values and politics can mix in a very different way than they did in 2004. 

Kevin Mattson is the author (most recently) of When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism (Routledge).
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Published in the 2004-11-19 issue: View Contents
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