If the vote in Ohio had been about the economy, John Kerry would likely be president-elect. If it were about terrorism, President Bush might have had an easier time. Instead it was about both, and more -- and that made it a very long night.
On the economy, 55 percent of Ohio voters said the job situation in their area is worse today than four years ago; 17 percent said it's better.
And 57 percent said the state's economy is in bad shape. Normally that's trouble for the incumbent -- but Kerry didn't entirely capitalize on it: Asked whom they trust more to handle the economy, 43 percent in Ohio picked Bush, 38 percent Kerry.
On terrorism, there was much more differentiation, and in Bush's favor: Ohio voters were 18 points more likely to say they trust Bush and not Kerry to handle it, by 48 percent-30 percent. And 58 percent said the country is safer from terrorism now than it was before Sept. 11 -- the cornerstone issue of Bush's re-election campaign.
In perhaps the bottom line result in an incumbent election, 53 percent in the Ohio exit poll said they approve of Bush's job performance overall. And in a telling note, this was the first time Republicans outnumbered Democrats voting in Ohio -- however narrowly -- in exit polls, at least since 1988.
Ohio Reflects National Divisions
For all that, Ohio was close, reflecting some of the very same divisions that appeared across the nation. While slightly more voters in Ohio approved than disapproved of the decision to go to war in Iraq, slightly more also said things are going badly there.
Kerry did better in Ohio than Al Gore did in 2000 with moderates, independents and young voters, and maintained his base among blacks.
But he held a slimmer margin among voters from union households than Gore in 2000. Bush, meanwhile, was strong with his white Protestant churchgoing base -- and enjoyed an even larger margin among white Catholics in Ohio than he did in 2000.
There was very little of a gender gap in Ohio, and instead a marriage gap; married men and women alike supported Bush, unmarried men and women supported Kerry.
Issue priorities help explain: Singles were more likely to call the economy and jobs their top issue. For married women, the No. 1 issue was moral values; for married men, it was the economy followed by moral values and terrorism alike.
In many cases, as went Ohio so went the nation. Critically, precisely equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans voted, 37 percent-37 percent; in the last four presidential elections, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by three or four points -- a small difference but an important one given the correlation between party allegiance and vote.
There was less of a gender gap nationally than in 2000; while Gore won women by 11 points, Kerry won them by five. The key reason: Married women, who favored Bush over Kerry by nine points, 54 percent-45 percent. In 2000, Bush and Gore split married women.
The marriage gap held among men as well: Six in 10 married men supported Bush; single men supported Kerry by nine points. Married men were somewhat more likely to cite terrorism and moral values as the top issues in their vote; single men were more likely to cite the economy and jobs.
Young voters were central to Kerry's hopes. They represented 17 percent of all voters, the same as in 2000, but they broke differently -- about evenly between Gore and Bush, but much more widely for Kerry, 54 percent-44 percent.
Kerry also won first-time voters, 54 percent-45 percent -- but again they made up no more of the national vote than in 2000. And the president made back enough ground in other, larger groups to prevail in the popular vote nationally.
One important change -- possibly a significant breakthrough for the GOP -- was Bush's improved performance among Hispanic voters, both nationally and in a variety of states.
In 2000, Hispanics voted 62 percent-35 percent nationally, Gore-Bush; in 1996, 72 percent-21 percent for Bill Clinton; in 1992, 61 percent-25 percent. This year, though, Hispanics divided by 55 percent-42 between Kerry and Bush -- while Kerry still won them, that's the best for a Republican among Hispanics in any exit poll at least to 1988.
This pattern held in a variety of states from Arizona to Florida to New York (but not California). And among the reasons was this striking result: While Hispanics accounted for 9 percent of all voters nationally, they were 16 percent of first-time voters -- and first-time Hispanic voters divided about evenly, 49 percent for Kerry, 48 percent for Bush.
The vote among blacks, by contrast, was very similar to its usual form. Blacks accounted for about one in 10 voters, and voted 89 percent-11 percent for Kerry.
Bush did well enough in job approval to win a referendum on the incumbent; 52 percent of voters nationally said they approve of his work in office overall.
But they divided about evenly, 49 percent-47 percent, on whether or not the country's headed in the right direction.
They divided about evenly on whether they've gotten better off (31 percent) or worse off (28 percent) financially under this president. And they divided about evenly on the decision to go to war with Iraq, 50 percent yes, 46 percent no.
More said the Iraq war now is going badly than said it's going well, 52 percent-43 percent. More than half, 53 percent, said the war in Iraq has not improved the long-term security of the United States -- its fundamental rationale.
But, more positively for Bush, 54 percent said they consider the war with Iraq to be part of the broader war on terrorism, as he has argued. The same number, 54 percent, said the country is safer now than it was before 9/11. And Bush led Kerry, 48 percent-31 percent, in trust to handle terrorism.
The single most important attribute being cited nationally was a candidate who would "bring about needed change" -- 25 percent of voters called it the top candidate quality in their vote. Naturally it was a huge group for Kerry. But it was countered by several other candidate attributes -- clear stands on the issues and strong leadership among them -- that worked about as solidly for Bush.
The exit poll draws a fascinating profile of American voters: Nearly two in 10 were military veterans (a pro-Bush group by 15 points). Nearly a quarter were racial minorities.
Four in 10 have a gun at home. About a third said they or someone in their household has lost a job in the last four years. About a quarter were from union households. Nearly three in 10, working women. More than six in 10 are married, and more than a quarter of voters are married with kids under 18 at home.
Bush's supporters overwhelmingly cited terrorism or moral values as top issues, and in personal attributes were most apt to cite strong leadership and clear stands. Kerry's supporters were more apt to cite the economy, the Iraq war or domestic issues as their top concerns.
There were many more minorities in Kerry's ranks than in the president's, more union members, more liberals, also more moderates. Bush's supporters were better-off financially -- and of course included far more conservatives and white Protestants.