Columns » Warwick Sabin



The story of the 2004 election in Arkansas is how the presidential race produced the highest voter turnout in the state’s history, and how it had absolutely no effect on the rest on the ballot. There is no doubt that it was the competition between John Kerry and George W. Bush that compelled Arkansans to go to the polls in record numbers. No other candidate or issue on the ballot compared in terms of contentiousness or importance. Furthermore, the state’s impressive voter turnout was consistent with that of the rest of the nation, which again shows that the presidential question was primary in everyone’s mind. However, if the race for the White House drove Arkansans to the polls, it is impossible to discern how it impacted their other votes. If anything, the 2004 numbers confirm the independent nature of Natural State residents. Consider Amendment 3, for instance, the anti-gay marriage initiative. Bush and Kerry both shared the opinion that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, but they differed on the need for a constitutional amendment enshrining that view. Arkansas was decisive on the issue, approving the amendment 74 percent to 26 percent (at press time). But there is no correlation between those numbers and the presidential tally, which went for Bush by a much smaller percentage. It is possible that, by motivating otherwise ambivalent citizens, the amendment provided the margin of victory for Bush. But it is hard to believe that anyone needed any extra motivation. The presidential race also was unique in Arkansas for the way it adhered most closely to geographical and political party lines. Democrats in Central Arkansas and the Delta, and Republicans in Northwest Arkansas, were mostly loyal to the top of their tickets. South Arkansas Democrats were the exception, and they put Bush over the top. These patterns did not hold in the other major statewide race, where incumbent U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln dominated her Republican opponent Jim Holt. And while this indicates that Bush didn’t have any down-ticket influence in Arkansas, that is beside the point as far as he is concerned. Kerry, on the other hand, failed to take advantage of a reverse-coattails effect. That is, he could have followed the model of the state’s most successful Democrats. Lincoln certainly had political capital to spare, and she could have introduced Kerry to skeptical voters in her comforting manner. U.S. Rep. Mike Ross was unopposed in South Arkansas, and he could have helped with farmers and hunters. Same goes for U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, who as a farmer and self-styled conservative Democrat had no trouble winning re-election in his Delta district. This would not have required any contradictions of principle on Kerry’s part. Lincoln, Ross, and Berry agree with Kerry on the key economic and health care issues which resonate with most Arkansas voters, and that dialogue could have been a focus for his campaign here. Kerry could have reminded people of his personal opposition to gay marriage, which worked for U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder, and he could have talked about his war record. The substance of the campaign was never a problem for Kerry in Arkansas, but he needed to reassure the people who simply viewed him as another Massachusetts liberal. A few well-timed and well-planned visits and events with the state’s strong Democratic standard-bearers could have done the trick. Of course, all of this could have been said from the beginning, and it was. Arkansas’s independent streak is well established, and its conservative leanings are well known. But it bears repeating because for the second presidential election in a row, the Democratic candidate didn’t acknowledge or employ this political knowledge. It certainly made the difference in 2000, when the state’s six electoral votes were pivotal, and it wouldn’t have hurt Kerry to have made the race closer in a Southern state where he supposedly had no chance. All of us are justifiably proud of being a unique, unpredictable political state. Our dirty little secret is that we are not so hard to understand. A closer look reveals surprising consistency in the way we make decisions at the ballot box. Problem is, no one takes the time to really get to know us.

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