The 2004 presidential election was the second in a row where the American people were evenly divided between the two candidates. There was renewed talk of a “50-50 nation”, split equally between red and blue states. Microtargeting—a sophisticated direct marketing strategy to identify and turn out small niches of voters—was all the rage.
A young Illinois state senator used his speech at the Democratic National Convention that year to distance himself from this polarization. Speaking in the tones of the preacher, this Democrat proclaimed there’s “not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.” He continued: “The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats.”
Well, the pundits were wrong: “We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.” The speaker then acknowledged the patriotism of both supporters and opponents of the war before concluding, “We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
On that night, much of the country fell in love with Barack Obama. That speech was one of two—the other being his remarks at an antiwar rally where he came out against the Iraq War—that are responsible for him being the president today. It is therefore ironic, and not just in the Alanis Morrissette sense, that Obama’s reelection strategy relies almost entirely on turning out the Democratic base.
Ironic, perhaps, but not surprising. Obama today finds himself in a similar situation to George W. Bush eight years ago. The electorate is ready to move on from the incumbent president; the opposition’s task is simply to come up with a satisfactory alternative. The president is left with two remaining trump cards: the opposition’s difficulty in finding such an alternative and his own party’s lingering affection for him—and deep disdain for the other side.
Thus we see Obama touring college campuses, promising the young voters he needs that he won’t let the Republicans hike interest rates on their student loans. He comes out for gay marriage, too late to have any impact on a referendum on the issue in North Carolina (a state he won in 2008 and where the Democratic National Convention will be held this year) but just in time to appear at a Hollywood left fundraiser with George Clooney.
Democratic campaigns essentially treated the whole marriage announcement as a big fundraiser, bringing in $1 million for the president in 90 minutes. The pitches not too subtly suggest that people may not be too fond of their gay friends in the red states, to say nothing of the threat posed by Romney’s awesome God in a blue state.
Vice President Joe Biden has been dispatched to deliver campaign trail hyperbole that would have made Spiro Agnew blush. None of this is an accident. As the Washington Post has reported, Team Obama plans “specific appeals aimed at women, African Americans, students, military families and countless others. The result is a campaign that might be the most micro-targeted in history, attempting to use the power of the web and social media to reach ever-thinner slices of the electorate.” Campaign manager Jim Messina reportedly assured Senate Democrats that they would emphasize turning out the party’s grassroots.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Romney has struggled to connect with rank-and-file Republicans as he has wended his way through the primaries. Obama’s outreach to the left bolsters the eventual GOP nominee’s support on the right. The 2012 presidential campaign, like 2004 before it, will be a base election. But make no mistake: this time Obama will be the chief Decider and Divider.
Consider their one attempt to woo the dwindling number of swing voters. An ad narrated by Bill Clinton reminds everyone who gave the order to kill 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden—and raises questions about whether Romney would have done the same. Romney is quoted as saying, “It is not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.” The commercial also cites Romney’s 2007 criticism of Obama for vowing to hit al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan if necessary.
Let’s not shed too many tears. While the ad is unfair, Romney’s defenders were equally willing to demagogue Ron Paul’s concerns about incursions into nuclear-armed Pakistan. And there were plenty of neoconservatives willing to deemphasize bin Laden in favor of Iraq and other invasions as a response to 9/11. But aren’t there just a few shades of Bush here?
Bush also pledged to be “a uniter, not a divider” before division became his most viable political strategy. By the end of a campaign filled with vituperation of “vulture capitalism” and all the usual culture war rhetoric, don’t be surprised if Obama joins Lee Atwater and Karl Rove in the annals of slicing and dicing our country into red states and blue states.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator and a contributing editor for The American Conservative.