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National Perspective | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Overriding Lesson of the Election: Partisan Camps Are Equally Matched

November 13, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

Everyone who predicted this result in the office pool, please raise your hand.

Many people thought this presidential election would come down to a close decision after a full 15 rounds. Few thought that the candidates would keep punching after the final bell. Or that they would run to the courts as soon as they staggered from the ring.

Yet it seems entirely fitting that an election that effectively began with the bitter warfare over President Clinton's impeachment is ending with an equally divisive battle over who actually won the White House. It is the perfect result for a nation that is peaceful, prosperous and yet utterly polarized politically.

For years, political scientists have been writing about the decline of partisanship, as a more educated and affluent electorate slips the surly bonds of party loyalty, yada, yada. Here's a news flash: As they say in Brooklyn, fuhgeddaboutit.

This was a deeply partisan election that stirred great emotions (particularly on the GOP side) and inspired great party loyalty in both camps. More than nine in 10 Republicans voted for George W. Bush, according to a Los Angeles Times national exit poll of voters. Nearly nine in 10 Democrats voted for Al Gore. The interest groups allied with each party lined up loyally and fiercely behind their man; in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, you could almost hear bone crunching bone as groups such as the National Rifle Assn. (for Texas Gov. Bush) and organized labor (for Vice President Gore) slammed into each other.

For whoever ultimately captures the White House, the overriding political lesson of this election is that the nation's two partisan camps are now equally matched. Measured by the division of the popular vote between Republican Bush and Democrat Gore, the electoral college results and the makeup of Congress, the two parties are more closely divided today than at any point since the late 19th century.

But if Republicans and Democrats are now operating at parity, it is a polarized parity. Each commands a mirror-image coalition. As the election demonstrated again, the Democratic base is predominantly female, heavily minority and unionized, urban and generally less religiously observant; the Republican coalition is predominantly male, overwhelmingly white and nonunion, heavily rural and tilted toward the religiously devout.

Gore ran best along the largely cosmopolitan East and West Coasts, connected only by a thin sliver of states across the upper Midwest with a progressive political tradition. Bush dominated the culturally conservative heartland, sweeping the Mountain States, the Plains, the South (except possibly for Florida) and even the inland agricultural regions of Washington, Oregon and California. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that Bush carried virtually every county where people start their day with coffee black and Gore almost every place where people stop on the way to work for a cafe latte.

Indeed, this proved to be an election much more about values than economic interests. Perhaps because the economy was so strong that few Americans worried about it, voters divided less along lines of class than cultural affinity. And on that line they divided as profoundly as at any time in recent memory.

Church attendance, for instance, provided a much more reliable key to voters' preferences than income. Overall, the differences in the vote by income were relatively modest.

Gore carried voters earning less than $20,000 a year by more than 2 to 1, The Times' poll found. But beyond that, the two men's totals didn't fluctuate that much up the income ladder. Bush carried those earning $100,000 or more, but only by 10 percentage points; Gore carried lower-middle-class families earning $20,000 to $40,000, but only by 6 percentage points. Families earning between $40,000 and $100,000 tilted ever-so-narrowly toward Bush.

Compare that to the relationship between church attendance and the vote. According to the Voter News Service exit poll, Bush won 63% of those who attend church more than once a week, 57% of weekly attenders, 46% who attend monthly, 42% who seldom attend and only 32% who never attend. Gore's vote followed the stairstep in precisely the opposite direction: He won three-fifths of those who never attend church and just one-third of those who are there every week.

Likewise, gun ownership proved a more powerful predictor of the vote than stock ownership. For years, conservative strategists have been predicting that as more Americans own stock they will be more likely to support conservative economic policies. As it turned out, that would have been a good bet to hedge; stock ownership had some effect on the vote, but not much. VNS found that Bush won a slim 5-percentage-point majority among voters who owned stock, while those out of the market gave Gore an 8-point advantage. By comparison, gun owners gave Bush a 26-point margin; the ungunned preferred Gore by 19 points.

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