WASHINGTON — Observed one way, the 2004 election result wasn't all that different from 2000: Almost every state went the way it did four years ago, and the popular vote was still relatively close. Even the voters' ranking of undefined "moral values" as the top election issue is nothing new. In the 2000 and 1996 elections, "moral/ethical values" (again, without definition) rated as the No. 1 election issue in the Los Angeles Times exit poll.
Politically, the United States has gone from being a 49-49 nation to a 51-48 nation, with Republicans more firmly on top.
But beneath that veneer of stability, the tectonic plates of America's culture wars are shifting. Particularly among religious conservatives, the feeling is strong that this is their moment - that they have returned one of their own to the White House, and now it's payback time. Suddenly, with Supreme Court vacancies looming, the overturning of nationwide abortion rights seems within reach. In the states, more gay-marriage bans are in the works.
For social conservatives, the chance to turn back a cultural revolution that arguably began with the invention of the birth-control pill - which in turn launched the sexual revolution and the anything-goes sensibility of the 1960s - has been a long time in coming. And it has taken the steady growth of religious-conservative involvement in mainstream politics to bring the movement to where it is today.
Since the '60s, "the society and the culture have moved to the left, almost consistently, over the years, and as a result, Americans who have traditional views on social values have become increasingly alienated and even angry," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "That has now fully manifested itself in our politics."
The starkest example of that is the swiftness with which the gay-marriage movement has been stopped in its tracks. Only a year after the Massachusetts high court legalized gay marriage, 13 states have passed initiatives banning the practice. Gay-rights activists are now operating cautiously, seeking to preserve gains, such as benefits for same-sex couples, rather than push for new ones.
But for most politicians in most states, same-sex marriage is an easy issue; nationally, a clear majority opposes it - a consensus that goes well beyond the conservative religious community.
Other items on the religious-conservative agenda aren't so clearly in sync with mainstream opinion, including opposition to abortion rights. Though many Americans are uncomfortable with abortion, most oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized it nationwide. In the 2004 election exit poll by a consortium of media, only 16 percent of voters said they oppose abortion in all circumstances, a figure that has largely held steady since the 1970s.
Even among social conservatives, the agenda is not monolithic. Several Republican senators who oppose abortion rights - including Orrin Hatch of Utah, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and John McCain of Arizona - support expanded federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, in opposition to the president and the leadership of the religious right.
And remember that 16 percent of voters who oppose all abortions? Of those, 22 percent voted for John Kerry.
Within scholarly circles, there's even a debate over whether a culture war exists in America at all. Morris Fiorina of the Hoover Institution argues in a new book that while the political parties and pundits present a nation riven by a deep ideological divide, most people hold moderate views on even the stickiest social issues.
But even if most Americans are moderates, it's the so-called religious right - a highly motivated coalition of Evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, and Orthodox Jews - that is feeling the momentum.
Seat by seat, since the late 1980s, the movement has elected dozens of members to Congress and developed organizational talent now in the forefront of the Republican Party, such as Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition wunderkind who oversaw Bush's Southern campaign in 2004, including the race in Florida.
Of all the factions in the Republicans' winning coalition, religious conservatives were the most organized and energized. In many instances, grassroots efforts by churches to work for Bush's reelection were already up and running before the Bush campaign came to town.
But religious conservatives remain a minority. And there's now a danger they will overreach, political analysts say. Right out of the block, they have worked hard to prevent Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, an abortion-rights supporter, from becoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee - the gatekeeper for Supreme Court nominations.
"They've gone after Arlen Specter tooth and toenail, and there is a real danger they may overplay their hand," says John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron. "They're certainly a very important part of the Bush coalition, but they're not the only people in that coalition, by any means. "
In fact, Professor Green adds, Bush likely wants Specter as committee chair. The president worked hard for Specter's reelection, which he barely won, and now Specter owes him.
Still, after an issue-rich election, focused on Iraq, jobs, and terrorism, the "values vote" is getting the lion's share of attention. In part, that's because a Supreme Court vacancy may be imminent. Media attention to "moral values" - the top answer, at 22 percent, in exit polls for most important election issue - has subsumed all the other big concerns, though they scored nearly as high. (And of course, some Kerry voters cited "moral values" as their top issue, which likely means the term signifies different things to different people.)
But Gary Bauer, head of the group American Values, argues that, in fact, Bush's winning majority can be defined as a culturally conservative governing coalition, with religious conservatives playing an important part.
"It includes people who listen to Jim Dobson and Focus on the Family, and it includes the guy sitting in his living room with his Budweiser who is just darned tired of seeing his middle American values trashed by the cultural elites," says Mr. Bauer, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2000.
In other words, you didn't have to be religious to be offended by Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl last January. You also didn't need to be a Republican, or a cultural conservative, for that matter.
The sense of threat to American values had already been exacerbated by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And in 2003, when Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage, followed soon by gay wedding ceremonies in other states (most of them Democratic-leaning), the world that Americans knew changed again.
For a lot of people, especially after 9/11, the Massachusetts ruling represented "too much destabilization to their traditional moorings," says Felicia Kornbluh, a historian at Duke University. She looks back to the period right after World War II, a time of great uncertainty as the cold war was starting. "We do know that one of the ways Americans responded to that was intense emphasis on the family."
By last spring, there were signs that cultural issues - God, guns, abortion, and gay rights - could tilt the election to Bush.
In a May survey, Republican pollsters Whit Ayres and Jon McHenry found that attitudes in swing states looked more like those in Republican states than in Democratic states. For example, in Republican states and swing states, voters opposed civil unions for gay couples by double-digit margins, while voters in Democratic states supported civil unions overwhelmingly.
"Ohio is not California," says Mr. McHenry. He and Mr. Ayres noted in a column in June that all these cultural issues created a "mosaic" that allows voters to determine whether a candidate looks at the world as they do.
All the attention to the role of "culture" in the outcome of the Nov. 2 vote may also refer to differing public perceptions of the candidates themselves. Senator Kerry's cultural persona - an elite, reserved Bostonian who windsurfs - felt alien to many people in middle America, and could have hurt him at the polls more than any of his issue positions. Bush's simple, blunt rhetoric, delivered with a Texas twang and religious references, belied his own elite background.
In the end, the president beat Kerry on "leadership" by a wide margin. At a time of post-9/11 uncertainty, that may have been the most important election message of all.