WASHINGTON — Considering the 2004 campaign without the presidential race is a bit like considering your meal without the entrée, but - for the moment anyway - let's do it. Looking at the various side dishes that accompanied our main course, what exactly do we see when we look at Tuesday night?
Well, at first glance it appears that whatever it is, it certainly is red - deep Republican red. The GOP picked up three seats in the Senate and four seats in the House.
And in 11 of 11 states, bans against gay marriages were approved. Put that together with the popular vote margin President Bush had in his presumed victory in the big race, and you have the makings of a mandate, right?
That is certainly the way you can expect it to be spun in the next few days. If it isn't put in the marching-to-victory frame by the Republican messagemakers over at party headquarters in the next few days, we can only assume someone is asleep and probably about to be fired.
But when you look at the results a little closer you see, well, not much really.
Let's start with the Senate. The GOP has to be happy with a net gain of four seats. It makes filibusters more difficult and inches them closer to the magic number of 60 votes. But consider for a second the places where seats turned - North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, South Dakota, and possibly Florida.
You can try to paint that as the beginning of a mandate, but it is better described as the final falling out of party realignments that began long ago. All those states went for Mr. Bush and, except for Florida, they did it by wide margins. Defeating Minority Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota is nice for bragging rights, but not worth more than any other seat in reality. And in Florida, the Republican candidate, former Bush administration official Mel Martinez, leads but by much less than Bush won the state. Mr. Martinez was aided by the fact that he is Cuban-American, a huge plus with the Hispanic population of Florida.
At the same time, the GOP lost its Senate seat in Illinois - a seat that naturally realigned to Democrats - and its seat in Colorado, which tilts between the two parties.
In the House, four seats is clearly better than no seats or a loss of seats, but considering the popular vote win by the president it's hardly spectacular, or even very good. Consider that in Texas alone four Democratic incumbents lost largely due to redistricting following the 2000 Census. Again, welcome to the realignment of the states.
The one place where the Republican Party can claim an unadulterated victory, and one that may have helped swing this election to the president, was on ballot initiatives banning gay marriage. Here there was a definite trend. Across the country, even in Oregon, where there was some question, voters showed they believed marriage should be only between a man and a woman.
But how big a win was this for the party? During the campaign, the president himself (quietly) announced he was not for banning civil unions, just marriages - and, yes, the distinction between those two things beyond semantics may be small. But many of these ballot initiatives went further than even the president wanted. They banned the government recognition of any sort of union between homosexuals.
Having these initiatives on the 2004 ballot probably helped the president some - possibly a lot - but what those votes mean in the long run is far from clear. Oregon and Michigan, which approved the measures, also voted against Bush in the big race. The nine other states that passed these measures went for Bush in 2000 and 2004, though the measure could have been key in swinging Ohio to the Bush column.
But if gay marriage and other cultural issues brought voters out to the polls, they also present more long-term problems for the GOP.
Many of the Republican rising stars, such as Rudolph Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger, are in favor of civil unions in a much more vociferous way than the president. And some of the party's social moderates - the last holdouts against Democratic realignment such as Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and both of Maine's senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins- are not happy with direction from the top. Given the Republicans' present course, one can only wonder how much longer they will stay in their party, or how much longer those seats will stay in the GOP column in the Senate.
And then there is the question of what the cultural issues mean to the nation's well-being. If cultural issues are going to be the hallmark of the next four years, it's probably safe to assume the divisions that were there in 2004 are only going to be deeper in 2008. When it comes to dividing a nation, tax cuts have nothing on values.
All of which means there are a lot of smiles on Republican faces in Washington today. But a mandate? Don't bet on it.
• Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism.