The battle for Ohio turned out to be short and conclusive. By the time more than 90 percent of the precincts there had reported, Bush strategists were certain there was no way for Kerry to win the state, and they chafed that the challenger would not concede.
Kerry aides originally believed there might be enough provisional ballots -- those cast by voters whose eligibility was in doubt -- to win Ohio. At that point, Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), made a speech at Boston's Copley Plaza in which he vowed that "every vote would be counted," a thinly veiled warning that the Democrats were prepared to begin legal action to contest the state. At the time, Kerry aides said, there was pandemonium inside the campaign.
Overnight, the Kerry campaign's senior staff, in a series of calls with the boiler-room leadership in Washington and political and legal advisers in Ohio, analyzed the situation. They concluded that the estimated 150,000 provisional ballots were not enough to overcome Bush's margin of 136,000 votes in Ohio, even if Kerry were to win the lion's share of them.
Some lawyers argued that Kerry had a good legal argument to make and said that if the campaign was serious about a possible challenge, it needed to move immediately to force the state's counties to adopt uniform rules for counting the provisional ballots. Eventually, senior adviser Tad Devine said, the Kerry high command presented the candidate with a unanimous recommendation not to fight the count. "It's fair to say the unanimous recommendation was that this would not succeed," he said.
Kerry further discussed the situation with Edwards, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, eventually agreeing that it was time to concede. At 11 a.m. yesterday, Kerry called Bush in the Oval Office to concede the election and pledge to bridge the nation's divisions. Three hours later, accompanied by his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, he left his home in Boston's Beacon Hill area for the short drive to Faneuil Hall.
There, he found a hall packed with campaign staff members and supporters, many of them trying to hold back tears over a loss that they never dreamed possible as they heard results of the first wave of exit polls Tuesday afternoon.
Kerry wasted no time in ending any talk of contesting the election. "In America, it is vital that every vote count and that every vote be counted," he said, in a nod to the exhortation that Edwards had invoked almost 12 hours earlier and that the two had used to rouse the Democratic base throughout the campaign. "But the outcome should be decided by voters, not a protracted legal process."
Kerry choked back tears and his voice broke as he recalled the experiences of his two-year campaign and talked about the need for unity in the election's aftermath, citing his conversation with the president. "We talked about the danger of division in our country and the need, the desperate need, for unity and for finding the common ground, coming together," he said.
Kerry advisers fully expected to win the election, based on their final polls, their analysis of Bush's weaknesses, their belief that the country hungered for change and their confidence that they would do a better job than the Republicans of getting their supporters to vote. Instead, they were swamped by a huge outpouring of votes in Republican-leaning areas of battleground states, particularly rural and small-town counties in Florida and the Midwest.
"We had [vote] goals that we set out that we thought were very realistic, that we thought could achieve victory," Devine said. "But a lot of people in rural areas participated in this process at levels that we have not seen before."
Another Kerry strategist said the campaign may have miscalculated the power of incumbency, especially during a time of heightened concern about terrorism. "It's easy to underestimate the reluctance in general that the American public would have in throwing out an incumbent president," the strategist said. "It's even more of a challenge when the country's perceived to be in some level of a war. That was an overriding backdrop that some of us tended to underestimate."
The Kerry camp also may have misjudged the power of Bush's appeal to social and cultural conservatives, even though White House senior adviser Karl Rove had explicitly set about to expand turnout among Christian conservatives.
Led by Rove, campaign manager Ken Mehlman, chief strategist Matthew Dowd and others, Bush's reelection team ran a disciplined operation that rarely deviated from the plan that was set from the start. Bush paid tribute to his team in his remarks yesterday, describing Rove, who has been at his side as he ascended through the Texas governorship to the presidency and now to a second term, as "the chief architect."
Bush's advisers, often second-guessed over their strategic decisions, took satisfaction not only from the victory but from the size of Bush's margin, which they said would end questions of legitimacy that had dogged him after 2000. Dowd, in a final strategy memo before returning to Texas, said the president had won more votes -- more than 59 million -- than any other candidate in history and that the campaign had succeeded in changing the shape of the electorate, raising Republicans to parity with Democrats.
"The other side did a very good job identifying their voters and getting them out to vote," Devine said. "It's just that simple."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford and political researcher Brian Faler contributed to this report.