Under "family," she recalled a photograph taken at Washington National Cathedral days after 9/11. It showed President Bush shaking hands with his father, the former president. "One of the most touching pictures I've ever seen," Bowers said. Even more important, though, was her overwhelmingly favorable sense of first lady Laura Bush. She could not imagine Laura Bush snapping at a reporter, as John Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, did, or seeming to denigrate cookie-baking, as Hillary Rodham Clinton once did. "I mean, I don't have time to bake cookies, either -- but I would never say that," Bowers confided.
Under "morals," she flashed back six years to the Clinton sex scandal, which was enough to make her a Bush voter when he ran against Al Gore in 2000. "It just embarrassed me, to have people talking about that all over the world," she explained. "I don't know much about politics and how it affects the economy and all that. For me, it just goes to integrity."
Pam Sackschewsky, left, Merv Ocken and Allen Stuhr in Waco, Neb.
As for "responsibility," that box contained ideas related to the principle that individuals, not the government, are responsible for their futures and families. Elaine and Charlie Bowers got married in 1983, had the first of their kids soon afterward and started their pre-owned car business a few years after that. In 2001, they were honored as the Kansas independent auto dealer of the year.
"We both worked hard," Elaine said, smiling. "We didn't take any handouts. We warranty all our cars because it is the right thing to do, and because in a town this size, people won't buy from you again if you don't treat them right."
All these individual impressions came together somehow to form the decisive one: "I think he's a good man with a good heart," Elaine Bowers summed up in Bush's favor. "I'm sad for the war in Iraq. I'm sad we had to go . . . I'm just very comfortable with Bush being president."
After a day of bearing south we tacked eastward, for the sake of variety, and sailed Interstate 70 toward Abilene, Kan. Out of 105 counties in Kansas, only two went for Kerry, one in the suburbs of Kansas City, the other one home to the University of Kansas. Abilene marked our closest encounter with blue, as we passed within a mere 115 miles of Douglas County.
We skimmed along under a sky the color of worn denim, empty but for the stitching of a lonely jet contrail, and as we passed bare cottonwoods revealing their magpie nests, and black cattle with white faces in faint green pastures, I wondered if the difference between gloomy Neal Chaput and buoyant Elaine Bowers could be as simple as a ring and a family.
For all the bluster and hand-wringing over the exit polls and the so-called values voters, the real demographic story of the 2004 election, according to Democratic poll-taker Stan Greenberg, was the pronounced victory by Bush among married people, both men and women. The old "gender gap," in which men voted for Republicans while women favored Democrats, has turned into a "marriage gap." Before I started this trip, I did some fiddling on the Internet with census data and election returns, and I found some striking correlations. Consider:
There are 30 states -- including all the Red Sea states -- in which married couples form a majority of all households. Bush won 22 of the 30, by an average of 21 percentage points. The eight that went for Kerry were very narrow victories, an average of five points. Utah, with the highest percentage of married folks, gave Bush his largest ratio of victory: 71 to 26.
In nine states, there are equal numbers of households headed by married and unmarried people. Sure enough, Bush and Kerry split them evenly, four for Bush and five for Kerry -- and by middling margins, too: an average 16 points where Bush won, 11 points where Kerry won.
Of the 11 states, plus the District of Columbia, where married couples form a minority of all households, Kerry won seven, by a jaw-dropping average of 24 percentage points. Bush won five, by the relatively skimpy average margin of nine points. The District, with the lowest percentage of married folks, gave Kerry his biggest win: 90 to 9.
One could dream up all sorts of theories about this. Married people have, on average, a more stable financial situation. They have, on average, more avenues of support in times of trouble. You might say that marriage involves the surrender of certain personal liberties in favor of creating lasting institutions. You might say marriage favors stability over experimentation. All of these might point, on average, to a more conservative disposition.
All I know for sure are the numbers. Only voters can explain the whys and wherefores.
So we kept driving.
Abilene is the once-bustling head of the fabled Chisholm Trail, a town where 3 million head of cattle, bewildered by the long walk from Texas, arrived (along with Wild Bill Hickok) during the hectic years from 1867 to 1872. Home to Dwight Eisenhower, the farm-boy hero turned Republican president. Home, as a relentless march of billboards informed us, to:
The Greyhound Hall of Fame . . .
The Museum of Independent Telephony . . .
The Abilene Fashion Museum . . .
The American Indian Art Center . . .
The C.W. Parker Carousel . . .
On the outskirts of town, as we came up an almost imperceptible rise, two more billboards caught our gaze and inspired us to stop.
The first one said, in simple black and white:
"Jesus Heals and Restores. Pornography Destroys."
As Bruce Owen explained after we knocked on his door, that billboard went up in direct response to the second sign, which loomed over Owen's roofline. It said, in simple black and yellow: "ADULT Superstore."
"We thought it would be a nice community," said Donna Owen. "We never dreamed that's the sort of thing that would come into that empty building."
When blue Americans and red Americans talk about each other, a fundamental disagreement has to do with which side is trying to ruin the other side's life. At the risk of oversimplifying, many blue Americans believe that Bush voters are trying to shove conservative morals into liberal bedrooms, to mandate prayer before intercourse, for example, and replace Victoria's Secret with Gladys's Nightshirts.
Conversely, many red Americans believe that liberals seek the spread of promiscuity and license into every village and dell and that they won't be truly happy until vibrators are distributed in grade schools.
In the case of Bruce and Donna Owen, the porn came after them, not vice versa. After all, this conservative Christian married couple didn't move to Times Square or West Hollywood and then start protesting pornography. They retired to a little hilltop outside Abilene, overlooking the Russell Stover candy factory, about 1,400 miles from New York in one direction and from Los Angeles in the other. Ike's home town, for heaven's sake.
And a smut shop popped up in their back yard.
Something was vaguely familiar about the Lion's Den Adult Superstore.
"An old Stuckey's," Bruce said.
On those endless drives across the Big Empty, my sisters and I would count the miles from one Stuckey's to the next, badgering our father to pull off the interstate so that we could stretch our legs while squandering our allowances on pecan divinity, squeeze purses and little rocks of fool's gold.
Apparently, the operation went through some tough times in the years since. Dozens of the teal-roofed oases were shuttered along highways across the Midwest. Turns out a fair number of them have been converted to sell sex toys, lingerie and hard-core videos. The Lion's Den, a chain of more than two dozen, has targeted rural America on account of the cheap leases, lax ordinances and under-titillated population.
When workmen appeared at the site a little over a year ago, Bruce Owen was told that the new store would be selling cowboy boots. Then, one Sunday morning in fall 2003, the Owens awakened to see the word ADULT hovering, floodlit, outside their back window.
A retired military man in Abilene, Philip Cosby, organized a protest. For 100 days, around the clock, through frozen winds and slushy storms, Bruce, Donna and some of their neighbors waved signs outside the Lion's Den. They copied identification numbers from the trucks that pulled in and telephoned complaints to the freight companies. They were pleased when a man from Wal-Mart arrived, bearing a promise that any driver caught stopping would never haul freight for the company again.
Cosby said the community raised $5,000 in one day to put up the anti-porn billboard. Leaders of this fight felt they had a friend in Bush, whose first-term attorney general, John Ashcroft, made an early priority of enforcing anti-obscenity laws.
The Owens disclosed this story cautiously, because they had no confidence that we would report it honestly. "We watch the news," Bruce said. "It seems like they think they know everything. They look down on us."