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Extraordinary Balancing Act Tips Toward Change


On a night when the presidency teetered by the hour between Al Gore and George W. Bush, an electorate overwhelmingly content with the nation's direction showed itself divided almost exactly in half between the two major parties--and appeared to narrowly choose change over continuity.

For the first time in nearly half a century, the election apparently gave Republicans unified control of the presidency, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Yet, paradoxically, the results demonstrated that neither party now controls a clear majority of support from the American people.

Depending on the results in the last three states too close to call--Wisconsin, Oregon and Florida--Bush or Gore will win the presidency by the smallest electoral vote margin since at least 1976, and perhaps since 1916. The popular vote remained divided as closely as in any election since at least 1960 and perhaps since 1884. It seemed entirely fitting, after a contest so even, that neither man could decisively claim victory in the early morning hours.

And though Republicans held the Senate, Democrats gained seats, perhaps even enough to reach a tie--though a Bush victory would give a Vice President Dick Cheney the tie-breaking vote. Nonetheless, the results left the parties so evenly balanced in both chambers that the next president will need to build bipartisan coalitions to achieve virtually any of his goals.

So close was the balance in the presidential election that even Ralph Nader's small showing as nominee of the Green Party may have been critical.

Far more important than Nader's overall national total was his showing in key states. In particular, though Nader only drew 2% of the vote in Florida; with the two men divided by only a handful of votes in that critical state--and apparently heading toward an automatic recount under state law--Nader's showing there might be enough to determine the next president.

After the relentless appeals to swing voters, the presidential election proved largely an old-fashioned battle between the Republican and Democratic parties to turn out their base. And in state after state, the razor-thin margins separating Gore and Bush all pointed toward a single conclusion: The two parties today are operating from a position of extraordinary balance.

"This is the culmination of having six years where we have been at rough partisan parity," said GOP pollster Bill McInturff.

Each candidate enjoyed an extremely high level of loyalty from his partisans, according to a Times national exit poll. Bush won fully 9 in 10 Republicans; Gore nearly 9 in 10 Democrats. Independents broke slightly for Bush. But independents comprised a notably smaller percentage of the electorate than in 1996; this was an election decided by true believers.

And for all the efforts of both Gore and Bush to reposition their parties, each in the end mobilized his side's traditional electoral coalition. Though Bush cut into some traditionally Democratic turf, this was in many ways a generic test of strength between two parties now standing toe-to-toe.

Gun owners, a key constituency for the GOP, gave about three-fifths of their votes to Bush. Union members, an equally integral element of the Democratic coalition, gave about three-fifths of their votes to Gore. Women gave Gore a commanding margin; men gave Bush a smaller but still solid advantage. (White men gave Bush a double-digit lead, but white women broke narrowly for Gore.)

Married voters broke for Bush; single voters strongly preferred Gore. Gore ran best among low-income families; Bush carried the most affluent. Independents who consider themselves liberal strongly preferred Gore; those who called themselves moderates and independents went almost as strongly for Bush.

One wild card was Nader, who took a small but potentially deadly bite from Gore, the exit poll found. Nader, the Green Party nominee, carried a minuscule number of Democrats, but did draw more than one-sixth of independents who consider themselves liberals, helping Bush squeak out his narrow victory among independents overall. Given the closeness of the race, no matter how it turns out, Democrats are likely to target Nader with bitter recriminations in the days ahead.

The Times exit poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 8,132 voters nationwide and an additional 3,393 voters in California. It has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The backdrop for this campaign was a mood of almost unprecedented material contentment: Nearly 7 in 10 said the country was moving in the right direction and a majority called themselves better off than eight years ago. Yet anxieties over the nation's moral course were evident in the clear majority of voters who said they disliked President Clinton personally, and the high share of Bush voters who cited moral concerns as a reason for their vote.

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