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The Fear Factor

On the weekend before the 2004 election, I followed some Bush-Kerry canvassers as they knocked on doors around West Chester, PA, a middle-class suburb west of Philadelphia in the state's Chester County. We visited neighborhoods that were Republican-leaning, but hardly hard-core conservative. Over and over I heard voters there say that they'd voted for George W. Bush in 2000, but were reconsidering: They now felt economically strained, turned off by religious-conservative extremism, and horrified by the Iraq debacle. Yet time and again they would conclude the conversation on a note along these lines: But Bush has kept us safe--there hasn't been another attack. Here's an excerpt from a piece I wrote at the time:

Particularly striking was one woman who answered the door in a black sweatshirt that read CRAYOLA. Her husband had been working for a private security firm in Afghanistan for a year, she explained. "I have really been struggling with this. This morning I decided we really need strong leadership. And I really think, if we vote Kerry in now, we're going to send the wrong message to Islamic fundamentalists." She had no illusions about Bush: "I want to see him lose a little bit of his arrogance," she explained. "And his Christian fundamentalist agenda really bothers me. I feel very uneasy about some of his views. But I feel more uneasy about Islamic fundamentalism." That might have been the story of the election.

Chester County went 52-47.5 for Bush in that election. Last night, it went 54-45 for Obama. There are many reasons Barack Obama won so handily, but the disappearance of visceral fear about terrorism and a resulting embrace of "tough" Republicans was surely a big one.

--Michael Crowley