WASHINGTON -- It was as if two different nations went to vote Tuesday -- men vs. women, big cities vs. small towns, large states vs. small, splitting their votes between Republicans and Democrats so evenly that the government of their one country, the most powerful nation in the world, hung in the balance.
Politically, demographically and culturally as well, the United States of America looked anything but united on Election Day 2000. In a time of peace and prosperity, with political candidates and parties that presented sharply contrasting views on the role of government, the priorities in the budget and the best way to preserve Social Security and Medicare, the two nations agreed only to disagree.
Yet paradoxically. There was a possibility that the divided country might produce a nominally unified government, with Republicans in control of the White House, the Senate and the House for the first time in 46 years.
The national divide went deeper than politics. It reached into the nation's psyche. The prospect of having either Vice President Al Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush elevated to the presidency left exactly half the country excited and optimistic and the other half concerned or scared, according to the Voters News Service exit poll interviews Tuesday.
That two men seemingly so close to the center line of politics could stir such different emotions said as much about the nation as it did about the candidates.
Either one faced the prospect, if president, of dealing with a Congress that could be as closely divided as the country -- with a chance that Republican margins could be smaller than the eight seats in the old Senate or the 13 in the House. Sen. John Breaux, D-La., quipped that "the most important person in the Capitol will be the physician. He'll check pulses every day."
More seriously, Republicans and Democrats agreed that unless the new president can change the tone of politics in Washington, the gridlock that marked the final three years of Bill Clinton's presidency will likely continue. "I hope whoever it is realizes the only way he can get done what he wants to get done is to reach across the aisle," Breaux said in an interview. "Otherwise, it will be gridlock."
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R), blamed by some for raising the level of partisanship, told NBC News that "whoever wins this election will have to focus on how he will reunite the country. He will have to sit down and talk with both parties and see if there is a common agenda."
To be sure, divisions along the lines of partisanship, income, education, race and gender are staples of American politics. Bush actually made some inroads in certain constituencies that have been Democratic in recent elections -- the young, Hispanics and Roman Catholics among them. But rarely have the dividing lines been so sharply drawn, the weight so even on each side of the line.
The gender gap that has become a familiar feature of politics reappeared Tuesday, with Bush winning men by 9 percentage points and Gore winning women by 12 percentage points -- apparently a wider divide than the gender gap four years ago.
The country also split between big and small states, with the larger states going for Gore, scattered among vast expanses of smaller-population states choosing Bush. "This is the strangest looking electoral map I've ever seen," said University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles O. Jones, noting that the results this time did not appear to break along regional lines.
As the Gore-Bush battle seesawed through hours of vote-counting, particularly striking was the gulf between rural and urban areas.
The cities of more than 500,000 were going to Gore by almost a 3 to 1 ratio. Urban areas of 50,000 to 500,000 favored the Democrat by 3 to 2. But in the small towns and rural areas, which contributed exactly as many votes, it was Bush who had 3 in 5 votes. The suburbs, the new swing area in politics, split evenly between the rival candidates.
The division was no accident. As Gary Bauer, who sought the Republican presidential nomination with the support of Christian conservatives, observed Tuesday night, "There really is a sharp clash between heartland values and elite values. My party is still very nervous about that, but it's the only thing that kept them in this election. It's Boy Scouts, the definition of marriage, the gun issue."
The National Rifle Association made huge efforts in the rural areas, warning gun owners and sportsmen that Gore was a threat. At the same time, organized labor, black churches and the NAACP were busy building the Gore majorities in the urban areas -- demonstrating that the racial divide runs deeply in American politics.
These cultural divisions clearly have been sharpened by the events of recent years, setting up a civil war not just within the country but seemingly within individual voters. Clinton appears to be more the focus of that controversy than either Gore or Bush.
Almost half the voters -- 44 percent -- said the Clinton scandals were either very or somewhat important in yesterday's vote, and not surprisingly, about 3 in 4 of them voted for Bush, the candidate who promised to "restore honor and integrity" to the White House. Gore naturally did much better among those who minimized or dismissed the relevance to this year's election of Monica Lewinsky and what Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called "the Motel 1600 fundraisers" at the Clinton White House.
It was the moral dimension that kept Bush in the race. Two-thirds of the voters said they thought the country was on the right track economically, and Gore led Bush among them by 27 percentage points, suggesting he should have won easily. But when voters were asked about the moral direction of the country, almost as many voters said the trend was adverse, and among them Bush beat Gore by 29 percentage points.
The same message came through when voters were asked about the candidate traits most important to them. Honesty led the list, and among those voters, Bush led by an astonishing 78 percent to 16 percent.
By contrast, the big tax cut that Bush made the centerpiece of his economic plan gained only limited support. Only one-quarter of the electorate said cutting taxes should be the first priority for a new president and only 27 percent gave it priority in deciding how to divide up projected surpluses. Improving education, protecting Social Security and paying down the national debt all had higher priority-and those who named them gave most of their votes to Gore.
Social Security appears to have been particularly important to Gore. The exit polls indicate that if only voters under 60 had come out Tuesday, Bush would have won a hairline victory in the popular vote. But a quarter of the voters were over 60, either receiving Social Security or anticipating that they will soon be getting those monthly checks, and they went for the vice president.
Gore also benefited from the massive union effort on his behalf. The share of the electorate that came from union households rose 3 points, from 23 percent in 1996 to 26 percent this year, and 3 in every 5 of those voters supported Gore.
As the battle for supremacy focused on smaller states where Green Party nominee Ralph Nader had shown significant support, the frustration of Democrats became evident. Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, the 1988 nominee, said: "Nader's vote in places such as Wisconsin and Minnesota and Oregon looks almost exactly like my margin of victory in those states. It's obvious the bulk of those votes would have gone to Gore. If he keeps Gore from winning them, I'll strangle the guy with my bare hands."
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