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The Bush Effect: Polarization, Turnout, and Activism in the 2004 Presidential Election


  • AUTHORS’ NOTE: An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, September 1 to 4, 2005, in Washington, DC.

Alan I. Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He has authored or coauthored four books, dozens of contributions to edited volumes, and more than forty articles in political science journals dealing with political parties, elections, and voting behavior in the United States. His most recent book, Voice of the People: Elections and Voting Behavior in the United States, was published in 2004.

Walter J. Stone is professor and chair of political science, University of California, Davis. He is coauthor (with Ronald B. Rapoport) of Three’s a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence (University of Michigan Press, 2005).


The 2004 presidential election produced a dramatic increase in voter turnout and in a variety of campaign activities beyond voting. In this article, we demonstrate that the main reason for this increased turnout and activism was the intense polarization of the American electorate over George W. Bush. George Bush in 2004 was the most polarizing presidential candidate in modern political history and a much more polarizing candidate than he had been four years earlier. Americans either loved him or hated him and they went to the polls in record numbers to express those feelings. Our findings do not support Morris Fiorina’s suggestion that polarization turns off voters and depresses turnout. Instead, they support the rational choice theory of turnout proposed by Anthony Downs: polarization energizes voters and stimulates participation. Whether turnout and activism remain at the levels seen in 2004 will depend on whether future presidential candidates produce a similar degree of polarization in the electorate.