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Inside red-and-blue America

Part one of five: A look at America's polarized electorate

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 14, 2004



WASHINGTON

Of all the forces governing this campaign, the greatest may not be the candidates themselves or the jolt of external events but something far more basic: The split personality of the US electorate. The election is being played out on a political landscape more sharply - and evenly - divided than any other in generations.

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The "red-blue divide," as it has come to be known, entered public consciousness in the 2000 election, when the nation split down the middle between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The color-coded electoral map told a blunt geographic tale: Mr. Bush's red swept across the South, the Great Plains, and most of the Rocky Mountain West, while Mr. Gore's blue covered almost all of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the West Coast. The dramatic results recast the United States as a bipolar, "50-50 nation," in which where one lived translated into differences in culture, values - and partisan allegiance.

Four years later, after the worst terrorist attack in American history, a protracted economic pause, and a controversial war, the nation's political divide has not only stuck but, if anything, seems to be intensifying.

Bush, the first president in 112 years to win the electoral but not the popular vote, now stands as one of the most polarizing presidents in history. Republicans grant him enthusiastic approval, while Democrats express an equally strong loathing. Although few observers expect this fall's election to come down to just 537 votes in Florida, Bush and Sen. John Kerry have been running virtually neck-and-neck from the beginning of the campaign. Some pollsters believe each candidate already has a lock on as much as 47 percent of the vote - leaving the outcome up to an unusually small number of swing voters in a small number of swing states.

The same dynamic holds true in Congress. Republicans now control both houses of Congress, but by narrow margins and with deepening partisan rifts that have kept both parties in a confrontational posture. At the state level, too, power hangs in the balance. Nearly half the states could easily see a branch of their legislatures change control this fall.

And in a broader sense, the national discourse seems unusually inflamed. Accusations of media bias are on the rise, even as left and right-wing polemicists, from Michael Moore to Bill O'Reilly, enjoy growing success. Voters speak of being unable to discuss politics with members of the opposite party, and many are seeking out like-minded environments - from news they watch to the neighborhoods where they live.

In coming days, the Monitor will explore the red-blue phenomenon in depth. Following this overview on the nature of the divide, and the forces propelling the split, stories will trace the evolution of one red state (Georgia) and one blue (Illinois). A fourth piece will explore how the media is shaping - and being shaped by - the divide. A fifth will look at a "purple" state - Pennsylvania - where the red-blue tug of war has not yet been won, and consider how the stalemate might be broken.

Like most trends in politics, the red-blue divide has been oversimplified and overstated. Skeptics note that a more accurate electoral map - taking margins of victory into account - would show the nation colored not red and blue but various hues of purple. And many Americans don't stand that far apart on the issues. While activists on both sides of the political spectrum may sharply disagree on everything from taxes to terrorism, polls show most voters see themselves as moderates.

But if voters often lean instinctively toward the middle, they are also sorting themselves into parties that are growing more ideologically pure, which is having a polarizing effect.

Ideological segregation
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