In Ohio, election battles have cooled, but peace is uneasy
President Bush's reelection has already had at least one clear effect on Becky Howard's daily life: It's put an end to the fights in her beauty salon.Skip to next paragraph
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Situated in the middle of one of the most closely contested counties, in one of the biggest battleground states of the 2004 campaign, Ms. Howard's hair and nail shop at times last year could have run its blow dryers on the tension in the room. Some of her regular clients were strong Bush backers, while others were equally adamant in their support for Sen. John Kerry. "We had several confrontations over it," she recalls. "I had to turn the radio up."
Since then, political passions have cooled in Springfield. Yard signs have come down and attack ads no longer clog the airwaves. The only visible reminders of the campaign are tattered bumper stickers flashing by.
But as Mr. Bush prepares this week to take his second oath of office, this working and middle class community - like much of America - remains deeply divided over the president's policies and what the next four years may bring.
Certainly, after four years of political parity, the nation's much-analyzed red-blue split now appears weighted more toward the GOP. On Nov. 2, Bush became the first president to win a majority of the popular vote since 1988 - and the first since Franklin Roosevelt to win reelection while increasing his party's margins in both houses of Congress.
But that hardly signifies an end to the partisan divide. Bush's electoral-vote margin was also the narrowest for any incumbent since Woodrow Wilson in 1916. A shift of some 60,000 votes in Ohio would have put Senator Kerry in office instead. More significant, Bush's approval ratings now rank among the lowest in history for a reelected incumbent - hovering around 50 percent.
At the same time, however, as the nation moves further away from the heat of the campaign, some analysts believe the political rift may also become less clear-cut - as it becomes less about parties and candidates than about issues.
In Ohio, voters today are no longer weighing Bush vs. Kerry, but they are still concerned about the economy, Iraq, and the cost of healthcare. The Ohio electorate may still be divided, "but it's divided within a series of issues that overlap with one another," notes John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. "Ohioans are not completely at each other's throats, because you might disagree with your neighbor on one issue, but agree with him on another."
Many of these crosscurrents can be seen in Clark County, where Springfield is located, and which was one of the most heavily targeted counties of both campaigns. Culturally conservative but hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs - the county has lost more than 11 percent of its jobs since 2000 - the area went narrowly for Al Gore, and was seen by both sides as politically up for grabs in 2004. It drew national fame when, shortly before the election, the British newspaper The Guardian posted the names and addresses of county residents on its website and invited British citizens to write letters urging people here to vote for Kerry - an event locals recall as "weird," and one that, if anything, probably backfired. It was in many ways a fitting climax to a campaign that residents say gave new meaning to the word intensity, transforming Springfield into a place where neighbors stole each other's yard signs, and families wound up barely on speaking terms. In the end, the county went for Bush by virtually the same narrow margin as the state as a whole.
Perhaps not surprisingly, while Democrats here remain clearly disappointed over the outcome of the election, and Republicans are uniformly pleased, nearly everyone seems relieved to have the campaign over with.