The surprise last night was that there were so few surprises. Just as President Bush's strategists have been predicting for years, it was another breathtakingly close election. The glut of polls in recent days proved, on average, to be close to the mark in their forecasts of an electorate divided by at best a point or two.
Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry were not wrong in choosing Ohio -- which early this morning was shaping up as a potentially decisive state -- for more than 80 visits this year by the party nominees or their running mates.
Once again, the prospect loomed that the national coin would not show up heads or tails but would wobble for a long evening -- and maybe longer -- on its side. With most of the states counted as of early this morning, not one state had voted differently in 2004 than it did in 2000.
And, if the wisdom among many political commentators proves right again, this election may not resolve the country's deep cultural and ideological divides -- which surfaced vividly in the 2000 race, and have persisted through a terrorist attack, two wars and a hard-fought election -- but give them new energy.
The results are "an indication that we still are clearly a divided nation," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at California's Claremont McKenna College. He added that Bush's strong performance in Florida and other swing states, combined with the continued GOP control of Congress, means that this rough parity has a modestly more "Republican edge."
Although the final judgment is still to come, yesterday's balloting did in several instances validate important elements of the Bush political model. This strategy has been based from the outset of Bush's term on careful tending of the Republican Party's conservative base, and a governing strategy based more often on trying to vanquish political adversaries rather than splitting the difference with them.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Iraq war, Bush strategists have also made a calculation that there is not so much difference between base voters and centrist "swing" voters -- both, they maintained, are concerned above all with national security and a strong preference for lower taxes. That strategy defied the wisdom of many Democrats since Bill Clinton, which held that swing voters were a distinct political entity and would not respond to a president as partisan as Bush.
As it happened, though, Bush's strategy worked last night much as it was supposed to, with most Republican-leaning states taken quickly off the table, and battleground Florida falling with relative comfort -- 52 percent to 47 percent -- into Bush's column. In Ohio, where Kerry and independent liberal groups waged an unprecedented campaign to register and turn out new Democratic voters, Bush responded with an unprecedented effort of his own that seems to have produced about as many Republican voters in rural and "collar county" suburban areas.
"One bit of conventional wisdom was that high turnout would benefit the Democrats," Pitney said. "Republicans may do it differently, but they proved they can produce high turnout, too."
The results last night, which were leaving Kerry pinned nearly to the mat, were confounding to centrist Democrats. Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, a moderate Democrat who wins high approval ratings in a deeply conservative state, said Bush's approach may convince people in both parties that cultivating "extremists" in the base is the right way to win elections -- even though he regards this as a dubious model for governing.
"The center is still where most Americans are," said Warner, in an interview last night before the results were clear. "The thing that struck me about this race is how rarely either candidate appealed to people in the other party."
For both Bush and Kerry, last night's results were a culmination of journeys that weave back decades in U.S. political history. In Kerry's case, there rarely has been a political figure whose date with the presidency was such a jarring combination of inevitable and implausible.
Four decades ago, the young man who worshipped John F. Kennedy and plainly styled himself after his hero was identified by friends and teachers as a man who would someday run for president. One year ago this week, Kerry was running 14 points behind former Vermont governor Howard Dean in New Hampshire polling, and was facing calls that he pull the plug on his ailing campaign.
His spectacular comeback in January in the Iowa caucuses -- after which his grasp on the Democratic nomination was never seriously in doubt -- has clear implications for the presidency he has been seeking. The contest was resolved so quickly that Kerry easily united his party's liberal and centrist wings around opposition to Bush. He was never forced to clarify such questions of what he would do in Iraq -- if there continues to be violence there and he cannot persuade more allies to join the U.S.-led intervention there -- or what his priorities would be in the tension between deficit reduction and expensive proposals on health care and other domestic policies.
The examples of the past influenced Bush's strategy as well. Aides made clear from the beginning of his presidency that he was determined to avoid the fate of President George H.W. Bush, who lost his bid for a second term in part because he lost the allegiance of party conservatives. President Bush certainly succeeded in keeping the GOP unified.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) said that however the election turns out, Bush made a choice that he did not have to make. "He could have chosen a 55 percent strategy, yet instead he went for a strategy that at best gets him to 50.001."
But early this morning, Bush had every reason to be satisfied with his calculations.