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GOP’s Future Sits Precariously on Small Cushion of Victory

Amid all the postelection tumult, it’s easy to lose sight of what President Bush did -- and did not -- accomplish in his reelection victory this month.

Bush didn’t build as commanding a presidential majority as some coverage has suggested, but he did significantly strengthen the Republican hold on Congress. One key question for the next four years is whether he can use that strong position on Capitol Hill to build a broader national coalition that would establish a more secure GOP edge in presidential contests.

Measured by contemporary standards, Bush won a solid, even decisive, victory. With his 51%, he became the first president since 1988 to win a majority of the popular vote.

He expanded his vote among Latinos, a key to maintaining the GOP’s advantage in Florida and the Southwest. He cemented the Republican hold on rural and fast-growing exurban counties. Like Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, he demonstrated that a culturally conservative and tough-on-security message could make inroads among both married women and blue-collar men.

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In all, Bush increased his margin of victory in 20 of the 30 states he won last time and reduced the Democratic margin in 11 of the 20 states he lost in 2000. With turnout surging, he won more popular votes than any of his predecessors. And he attracted this support in a difficult climate marked by an uneven economic performance at home and a grueling war in Iraq.

Yet by the standards of previous reelected presidents, Bush’s victory looks much more modest. Since the formation of the modern political party system in 1828, 11 presidents have won a second term, while four more -- Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson -- won election after completing the term of a president who died in office.

No single measure captures the extent of a presidential victory. The sheer number of voters that Bush inspired to turn out demonstrated impressive strength. But on several key indicators, Bush’s victory ranks among the narrowest ever for a reelected president.

Measured as a share of the popular vote, Bush beat Kerry by just 2.9 percentage points: 51% to 48.1%. That’s the smallest margin of victory for a reelected president since 1828.

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The only previous incumbent who won a second term nearly so narrowly was Democrat Woodrow Wilson: In 1916, he beat Republican Charles E. Hughes by 3.1 percentage points. Apart from Truman in 1948 (whose winning margin was 4.5 percentage points), every other president elected to a second term since 1832 has at least doubled the margin that Bush had over Kerry.

In that 1916 election, Wilson won only 277 out of 531 electoral college votes. That makes Wilson the only reelected president in the past century who won with fewer electoral college votes than Bush’s 286.

Measured another way, Bush won 53% of the 538 electoral college votes available this year. Of all the chief executives reelected since the 12th Amendment separated the vote for president and vice president -- a group that stretches back to Thomas Jefferson in 1804 -- only Wilson (at 52%) won a smaller share of the available electoral college votes. In the end, for all his gains, Bush carried just two states that he lost last time.

Another trend explains why all of this might matter to more than just historians: Throughout American history, the reelection of a president has usually been a high-water mark for the president’s party. In almost every case, the party that won reelection has lost ground in the next presidential election, both in the popular vote and in the electoral college.

The decline has been especially severe in the past half century. Since 1952 there have been six presidential elections immediately following a president’s reelection. In those six races, the candidate from the incumbent’s party has fallen short of the reelection numbers by an average of 207 electoral college votes and 8.4 percentage points in the popular vote.

Because his margin was so tight, Bush didn’t leave the GOP with enough of a cushion to survive even a fraction of that erosion in four years. Even if the GOP in 2008 matches the smallest electoral college fall-off in the past half century -- the 99-vote decline between Reagan in 1984 and George H.W. Bush in 1988 -- that would still leave the party well short of a majority.

So Bush needs a second term successful enough to break these historical patterns. That’s where his gains at expanding the Republican margins in Congress could become critical. In 2002, Bush became the first president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 to win House and Senate seats during his first midterm election. This year, he became the first president since Johnson in 1964 to add House and Senate seats while winning another term.

Make no mistake: Bush has been a driving force in the GOP congressional growth. Every Democratic House and Senate seat that Republicans captured this year came in states Bush carried twice.

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In Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana and Georgia, where the GOP won Democratic Senate seats, at least 84% of Bush voters also supported the Republican Senate candidate, according to exit polls. More than three-fourths of Bush voters backed the winning Republican Senate candidates in South Dakota and Oklahoma.

The scale of Bush’s victory, compared with that of most other reelected presidents, doesn’t provide the basis for claiming an extravagant mandate. But a mandate is always an abstraction. The GOP gains in Congress give Bush something more tangible: a solid majority in both chambers. And a majority crowded with politicians who partly owe their seats to his popularity in their state.

Bush still needs some Democratic support to reach the 60 Senate votes required to break a filibuster. But he has enough congressional strength to pass an agenda that could define his party for 2008 and beyond. The question is whether the agenda he advances will expand or erode a presidential majority that, by historical standards, remains fragile.

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Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at www.latimes.com/brownstein.


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