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.
At a news conference in Nashville Thursday afternoon, Gore campaign chairman William Daley said reports that Bush had tentatively named a chief of staff and planned a victory celebration to mark the end of the recount were interfering with the democratic process.
“I believe that their actions to try to presumptively crown themselves the victors, to try to put in place a transition, run the risk of dividing the American people and creating a sense of confusion,” said Daley.
But Bush campaign chairman Don Evans, at a later press conference in Austin, Texas, said Daley’s comments were “politicizing and distorting” the matter “at the expense of our democracy.”
Moving to the Middle Still, the familiar demographic divisions made manifest in the election may not represent an irreparably fragmented electorate.
Exit-poll data show a solid 50 percent of voters describing themselves as politically “moderate,” while only 29 percent called themselves “conservative” and still fewer, 20 percent, said they were “liberal.”
And both Bush and Gore focused on many of the same issues throughout the campaign, touting their plans to overhaul Social Security, change Medicare, make prescription drugs more readily available for seniors and improve public education.
Ruy Teixeira, co-author with Joel Rogers of America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working-Class Vote Still Matters, suggests that Bush successfully picked off a sizeable portion of the lower-income voters who otherwise would have opted for the Democrat.
“Bush’s strategy was to blur the differences,” says Teixeira. “Generally he tried to run on a program that suggests he would try to do the same kinds of things, but better.”
And Susan Carroll, a professor at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, points out that Bush stayed away from the contentious issue of abortion rights.
“It matters a lot to a small group of voters,” Carroll said. “But for most voters, it’s one issue they may pay attention to in a whole range of issues.”
And then there is Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who garnered more than 2 million votes while insisting the two major parties had become indistinguishable.
“It’s the permanent corporate government that’s running the show here,” said Nader last month. “The two parties are becoming increasingly insignificant that way, and you can see they’re morphing more and more into one corporate party.”
With this in mind, the divisions in the electorate may not be indicative of permanent schisms in the American electorate, as much as the inability of either Bush or Gore to take control of a campaign which has still not ended.
“One or the other of the parties is going to have to put together a vision or a program to win a mandate,” says Teixeira. “Voters don’t see either party as being decisively able to do that.”