Election Day indicates nation’s political divide is deepening

This was another paradoxical election. An increasingly conservative Republican Party held onto the majority of seats in the House, while Democrats retained the White House and Senate, Wisconsin elected a gay senator, Maine and Maryland approved same-sex marriage, and Washington state and Colorado legalized marijuana.

The Democratic governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, said the will of the people has to be respected, but warned pot smokers not to celebrate: “Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly.”

The people have spoken, but the messages of Election Day are not easily heard in the cacophony of our political culture. Americans have conflicting thoughts. If anything, our political divisions are deepening over time. We have a divided government because we are a divided people. This is who we are.

Contrary to what the president famously declared when he came to prominence in 2004, and which he echoed early Wednesday in his victory speech, there really does seem to be a Red America and a Blue America, each seeing a markedly different reality. That’s why seven in 10 Democrats say the economy is getting better, while nearly six in 10 Republicans say it’s getting worse, according to exit polls.

Somehow, Vermont, which reelected a socialist senator, is part of the same country as Oklahoma, where voters on Tuesday passed a measure to eliminate all affirmative action in state hiring and contracting.

When President Obama took a stage in Chicago in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, he described the country’s stark ideological disconnect as an outcome of our political blessings:

“Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated,” he said. “We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy.

“That won’t change after tonight, and it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty. We can never forget that, as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.”

By traditional calculations, the president was perfectly positioned to lose reelection, with the economy crawling along, the unemployment rate stubbornly close to 8 percent, and key states like Florida and Nevada struggling to emerge from a protracted housing crisis. But when voters were asked in exit polls Tuesday whom they blamed for the nation’s economic malaise, only 38 percent said Obama.

Instead, 53 percent blamed a man so out of the spotlight recently that he may well be in a witness protection program: George W. Bush.

“Obama’s done the best he could with what he’s been handed,” said Donna Namchek, 43, a business manager in Henderson, Nev.

Namchek was among the scores of swing-state voters who spoke to Washington Post reporters on Election Day and in the days and weeks leading up to it. Many said explicitly that Obama inherited a mess and needs more time to clean it up.

And many said exactly the opposite: That he failed. That he is a smart guy who couldn’t get the job done and ought to be replaced. Some, angrier and sensing malign forces at work in the world, expressed fringe theories that Obama is secretly a communist, or is fundamentally anti-American.

Some voters said they were sick of the campaign and its negativity, and want a more united government.

“It’s been brutal,” said Karen Wood, a 39-year-old hairstylist who stood in a long line at Manchester Memorial High School in New Hampshire to vote. “It’s been so much advertising, most of it half-truths if not outright lies. And I’m tired of watching them beat on each other. It’s a sad state of affairs. I don’t remember it ever being like this.”

Said Kathy Roadarmel, 43, a teacher in Gainesville, Va.: “I think we need to reevaluate the whole Democrat-Republican thing.” She worries about the effect of the negative TV ads on her children:

“It doesn’t teach living together, working together. It’s a bad influence.”

At Mitt Romney's campaign office in Independence, Ohio, Steve and Christina Biro offered a completely different vision of the threat facing the country.

“It’s called communism,” said Steve, 59, a retired telephone company worker who grew up in Hungary and became a U.S. citizen last year. He said he thinks the United States is heading toward fewer personal liberties and more expansive government.

“We see it as a beginning of Nazism,” Christina said.

Steve added, “Or communism. Take your pick.”

In some parts of the country, voters cast ballots for tolerance. In addition to upholding a same-sex marriage law, Marylanders approved in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants and embraced a major expansion of casino gambling. Minnesotans rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Nationally, 49 percent of voters wanted their states to recognize same-sex marriage and 46 percent were opposed.

The Senate will have its first openly gay member when Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin is sworn in. Her supporters note that the issue just hasn’t come up often. “Maybe we’re just moving past all that,” said Kelly Webber, an IT worker in Waukesha.

Republicans may want to listen to such voters as Ting Chu-Richardson, 25, an admissions counselor for a small college in Amherst, Mass., who thought Romney was stuck in the past.

“I have two moms who were married in Connecticut,” she said at a cafe in Nashua, N.H.

The most obvious lesson of Election Day is that the Republican Party has a demographic problem. On Tuesday, 89 percent of Romney’s supporters were non-Hispanic whites. This is a different country every four years, with a different complexion. Twenty years ago, whites made up 87 percent of the electorate, but that percentage has steadily declined, and it did again this time, dropping from 74 percent in 2008 to 72 percent on Tuesday. For the first time, Hispanics made up 10 percent of the electorate, and the vast majority supported Obama.

“The problem Romney had, he was very clear, he was not going to do anything for the immigration,” said Manuel Villena, 56, a Peruvian American who came to the United States in 1985 and now has a construction business in Virginia’s bellwether Prince William County. “The best president we ever had was Reagan. Because Reagan said amnesty for everyone. And he was a Republican.”

There are other colors of the rainbow largely missing in the GOP portfolio. Asian Americans overwhelming supported Obama, for example.

Republicans once again had an advantage among voters who are retirement age, but young people — those who will make up the electorate of the future — once again went strong for Obama.

One of them was Cody Rufer, a junior horticulture major at Iowa State who thought Obama was more likely to keep his tax rates from going up.

“I come from a working-class family, and we’ve always struggled to pay bills,” Rufer said. “We can’t afford to pay any more taxes.”

A final memory of Election Day will be the long lines. In Miami, voters were still queued up after midnight. “We have to fix that,” the reelected president said early Wednesday morning in an ad-libbed moment at his victory rally.

But the lines revealed that many Americans are not casual voters. They want to participate and will endure long lines to do so.

In a food court Tuesday at the University of South Florida’s student center, Sheila Tayoba Nogueira gazed with admiration at the students waiting to vote.

“They are standing in line because they have something to say,” said the 58-year-old mother, who emigrated long ago from the Philippines. In her home country, she said, politics can be much more brutal. “They use the muscle if it doesn’t go their way,” she said. Now, as she watched the headphone-wearing students in line, she felt good about her adopted country.

“I’m hopeful,” she said. “They’re educated. They’re putting their say on what’s going to happen. If they don’t, who’s going to do it?”

Brady Dennis in Florida, Lonnae O’Neal Parker in North Carolina, Craig Timberg in Ohio, Steve Hendrix in Colorado, Donna St. George in Nevada, Jenna Johnson in Iowa, Emily Heil in Wisconsin, Darryl Fears in New Hampshire and Peyton Craighill in Washington contributed to this report.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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