Either George W. Bush or Al Gore will lead a profoundly divided nation.
Should Bush’s slender lead in Florida stand up to the ongoing recount and any legal challenges, he will become the first president since 1888 to win a majority of Electoral College votes while losing the popular vote.
Should Gore win, he will have become president by a razor-thin margin and will face a Congress controlled — if barely — by the opposing party.
“It’s certainly not going to be harmonious,” says Larry Makinson, director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, looking ahead to a period of fractious oppositional politics.
Race, Gender and Class Divisions
Neither candidate will have anything approaching a popular mandate. Interviews Tuesday of voters as they left polling places revealed a country filled with jagged political, social, racial and even geographic rifts.
Although both candidates are generally considered to be moderates, the exit poll data show a litany of contrasts among supporters of Gore and backers of Bush, with traditional Democratic and Republican splits remaining intact or even widening.
African-Americans, a traditionally Democratic group, favored Gore over Bush by 90 percent to 8 percent, despite a conspicuous attempt by the Republicans to give speaking roles to African-Americans at the party’s convention this summer.
And the so-called gender gap was more prominent than ever this year. Exit polls showed Bush winning among men, 53 percent to 42 percent, while Gore had a clear edge among women, 54 percent to 43 percent.
It is the first time since exit polling began in 1980 that a clear majority of men and women favored different candidates. Overall, the gender gap moved from 17 points in 1996, when President Clinton beat former Sen. Bob Dole, to 22 points this year.
And there is a clear correlation between income levels and political preference as well. Gore had the edge among all voters in families with incomes of $50,000 or under, while Bush maintained the traditional Republican advantage among wealthier voters.
It’s the Geography, Stupid
The country’s regional differences, though, may resonate even more strongly. Gore gained most of his Electoral College votes from states on the two coasts, while Bush carried most of the states in between.
Florida aside, Bush’s success is a legacy of the “Southern Strategy” used by Richard Nixon in 1968. Nixon was so successful courting white working-class voters that the South, previously a Democratic stronghold, has remained largely in GOP hands.
But Bush also captured most of the Midwest, and all of the Mountain West region save New Mexico.
Gore, by contrast, saw states in the more liberal Northeast falling for him like dominoes from Maryland to Maine. The Democratic nominee also won in California by a healthy 54 percent to 41 percent, carried Washington and may still win in Oregon, which like Florida has not been decided yet.
And Gore benefited from strong union support, an essential part of successful democratic campaigns, to carry Pennsylvania and a chunk of the upper Midwest, including Michigan and Wisconsin.
And then there is the chance that the contentious post-election dispute about the Florida vote will only serve to deepen political tension over the long run. Prominent members of each campaign have accused the other side of working to divide the country.