To understand why America skewed red on Election Day, you might talk to Gary Bauer, the conservative activist, former Republican candidate for president and creator of an organization called Americans United to Preserve Marriage.

The group spent a million dollars in Ohio, Michigan and across the country. It warned voters that a nation led by John Kerry might be one in which homosexuals could get married -- and not just two at a time.

"Most Americans don't want to sit down and explain to their children why they live in a country where men can marry men, why there's polygamy -- because that would naturally follow, we would argue," Bauer said yesterday.

If two men could marry, so could three, four, or more, Bauer said. Moreover, he said, "textbooks could not talk about 'mothers' and 'fathers.' They could only talk about 'parents.' "

Not long ago, this might have been considered a somewhat fringe viewpoint, a trifle alarmist -- "polygamy" just isn't something you hear people talking about in Washington political circles -- but gay marriage now seems essential to any conversation about the 2004 election. The exit polls pointed to a huge boost for Republicans from voters who said their biggest concern was "moral values."

The term wasn't defined, and Democrats spent much of yesterday protesting that they have morals and values, too. The term is basically a code phrase for abortion and gays. For some people, particularly religious evangelicals, these issues are even more important than Iraq, terrorism, the economy, health care, the environment and education. Moral issues gnaw at the guts of people who think they know right from wrong and normal from sick. The reelection of George W. Bush as the 43rd president of the United States appears to be at least in part because of a fear that liberals favor marital unions among sodomites.

Ohio may have lost a couple hundred thousand jobs during the tenure of President Bush, but Kerry, despite all his trips to the state, couldn't turn it from red to blue. Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, another conservative group that spent many hundreds of thousands of dollars on the gay marriage issue, said yesterday that Ohio and Pennsylvania have similar demographics. Bush won Ohio, and Kerry won Pennsylvania. The difference, he argues, was that Ohio's ballot included an amendment to ban gay marriage.

"It was these values voters who ushered the president down the aisle to a second term," Perkins said. Even the Republicans didn't see it coming, he said. "People are shocked that it wasn't the war, it wasn't the economy; it was the values issues that generated so much activity in this election."

The culture of official Washington doesn't speak the language of Heartland values very fluently, in the same way that a salesman at a John Deere dealership in southern Ohio might not fare so well at the bar of Cafe Milano. So perhaps the Washington culture overestimates the political traction of, say, economic issues, and doesn't fully grasp how angry some people get when the mayor of San Francisco starts passing out marriage licenses to gay couples.

To say that we live in an age of Red America would be going too far. Bush won 51 percent of the vote, hardly a landslide, unless you compare it with the last election, where his margin over Al Gore in the popular vote had a negative sign in front of it. There are still blue patches on the coasts and in the big cities and along the crusty shores of the Great Lakes and in scattered college towns across the continent. Some suburbs are purple.

But 11 states offered voters a chance to ban gay marriage, and in every state they did so. Gay rights groups spent nearly $3 million to defeat the anti-gay amendment in Oregon and lost by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent. In Mississippi, 86 percent of voters nixed gay unions.

The Republicans gained strength in the House and Senate. South Dakota decided it would rather be represented by a Republican than by the most powerful Democrat in Washington. Kentucky returned Republican Jim Bunning to the Senate despite speculation that he has gone crazy. Alaska reelected a Republican senator who was appointed to the job by her dad. Louisiana elected the first Republican senator since Reconstruction.

Bauer said yesterday, "I think even on the Democratic side there's a growing awareness that they're losing millions of voters that they might be able to get on economic issues, but just can't stomach that party's association with Hollywood and cultural radicalism."

Bush won 61 percent of the white male vote in a nation that, despite everything you hear in the progressive media, is still swarming with white guys. Bush won among white women, too (54 percent to 46 percent), and the elderly and the very middle of the middle-class.

All of this takes place against a historical backdrop in which Democrats have struggled to win the presidency since World War II, says historian Rick Shenkman, editor of George Mason University's History News Network. Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter barely squeaked out victories. Bill Clinton had Ross Perot scrambling the equation in 1992 and never won a majority of the vote. Only Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide stands out as a resounding victory, Shenkman said.

"That tells you that this is a conservative country. It's not a country that normally elects Democrats," he said.

The Democrats have to decide whether to reinvent themselves, he said. In 1928, the Democrats may have lost to Republican Herbert Hoover, but they stuck to their ideological grounds and waited for the country to come back to the party. In 1988, when Michael Dukakis lost to George H.W. Bush, many Democrats decided to shift to the right, spawning the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and the "Third Way" politics of Clinton.

"The Democrats have to decide if this is 1928 or 1988," Shenkman said.

In his concession speech yesterday, Kerry urged his supporters to try to work with Republicans to solve the nation's problems. But he also said they should stick to what they believe in. Compromise or stay firm? Democrats have some hard thinking ahead.

Tuesday afternoon they thought they were winning, just as they thought they were winning four years ago (and still think they won). The exit polls looked so good for the Democrats this time. Some of the numbers were astounding -- Kerry up 20 points in Pennsylvania! Even conservative Virginia, a sure lock for Bush, appeared to be in play. "Kerry Leading" said the headline of one online publication.

But it turned out to be Lucy teeing up the football and asking Charlie Brown to kick it.

Kerry will surely take some lumps for his various imperfections as a candidate. He was hard to know, harder to love. But he had the want-to, kept moving forward, proved himself a political thoroughbred in the hardest race of all. Even late on Election Day, the senator kept campaigning, hooked up by satellite phone from his hotel room in Boston, hoarsely cultivating the final stalks of support among the amber waves of voters. No one can doubt that John Forbes Kerry really wanted to be president.

At some point during Election Night -- a temporal span stretching from 7 p.m. Tuesday to about 11 a.m. yesterday, when Kerry called Bush to concede -- the Democrats realized that exit polls don't count. Reporters realized that the interviews they'd been conducting on the premise of a Kerry administration or the political significance of young voters (the Youthquake!) were now about as valuable as a Walter Mondale position paper.

As the hard numbers rolled in, the Democratic National Committee party at the Capital Hilton began to deflate, as though somewhere along the way the event had run over a nail.

By midnight Kerry could no longer be credited with that marvelous attribute, sanctioned long ago in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, of "electability." Close doesn't count. He'd get the L instead of the W. Bottom line, they might as well have nominated Howard Dean.

Republicans had their own endless night, full of anxiety and equivocation and irritation. Even as the news got better, no one wanted to be so incautious as to gloat about the evidence of an impending victory. But just before 1 o'clock in the morning, Fox News called Ohio for Bush. People let loose and began a celebration. Jack Frommer of San Diego took off his tie, opened a button on his shirt and put on his cowboy hat.

"To be honest, I'd been thinking, if this doesn't go our way I was going to get down on my knees and pray," he said. "Because the country does not understand an honest man when they see one, does not understand morals when they see them. Now I have faith, in Florida, in Ohio, in America. Thank God. We're on the right track."

Yesterday afternoon, a couple hundred people gathered on 14th Street, outside the Ronald Reagan Building, to cheer the president as he came to deliver his victory speech. There were no Kerry supporters in sight, only one guy with an anti-Bush sign about a block away. The legions of people who had devoted themselves to defeating the president had lost heart and gone home, if they had not been rounded up and jailed.

Bush spoke briefly, and graciously, made the ritual promise of reaching out, and soon was speeding away. Paul Schenck, a pastoral associate with Gospel of Life Ministries who has spoken to tens of thousands of people in hundreds of churches, explained why he and others are so focused on marriage.

"The Democratic Party stands for, by and large, the dismantling of marriage as we've known it as a civilization," he said.

He said this without rancor. This was common sense.

"Marriage has only been between a man and a woman," he said. "When you toy with the sanctity of that institution -- as ancient, as primordial, as it is -- you are shaking the core of a community."

His friend Mark Garrett, 41, a pastor of a small, interdenominational church in southwest Ohio -- a congregation of about 200 people, most of them blue-collar workers -- said the Democrats never grasped the passions aroused by the marriage debate.

"They felt it was almost an affront to their faith," he said.

Kerry repeatedly said he opposed gay marriage, but favored civil unions. Kerry also opposed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. His positions were nuanced. Bush's weren't. That made a difference.

Some people, Garrett said, were also skeptical about Kerry's recent trips to churches and his decision to talk more about his own faith. It seemed opportunistic. It was as though Kerry was trying to "use" the church, Garrett said.

Schenck agreed. He said of Kerry, "I'm not going to question his soul, but if he was trying to connect, it was too little, too late."

Staff writer Hanna Rosin contributed to this report.

Voters in Santa Monica cast their ballots in a church Tuesday. In general, Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, says: "It was these values voters who ushered the president down the aisle to a second term." President Bush speaks at a victory rally in the Ronald Reagan Building with his family and the Cheneys. Conservative activist Gary Bauer says the race hinged on moral values, such as proposals to ban gay marriage. An election stunner: Below, left, John Thune (R-S.D.) unseated Sen. Tom Daschle. At right, Republican Sen. Jim Bunning held off his Democratic challenger.