Tuesday's election revealed deep cleavages in American society, splitting citizens by region, gender, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, values and education level. But there is one thing that united Americans on Tuesday: They were worried.
Some feared a threat to traditional values. Voters approved constitutional amendments in 11 states banning same-sex marriage, and more said their main concern was morality than any other issue.
Others feared job loss and economic disruption. A majority thought the economy is in bad shape, and nearly half said the employment situation had deteriorated in the past four years, according to interviews of voters leaving the polls.
And nearly everyone feared terrorism. Three-quarters of voters -- supporters of President Bush and John F. Kerry alike -- said they were worried there will be another major terrorist attack in the United States.
More than anything else, Tuesday's election revealed an anxious electorate and a populace lacking in confidence, a number of political scientists and polling experts say. The Bush campaign warned citizens that Kerry would make the country more vulnerable to terrorist attack and to a breakdown of the traditional family. The Kerry campaign warned that more Americans would lose jobs and health care under Bush and even face a reinstated draft because of the Iraq war.
And, by various measures, Americans responded with high levels of worry. Voters followed the election unusually closely. Also, Bush narrowed his deficit among female voters to five percentage points from 11 in 2000 -- evidence that "security moms" doubted Kerry's ability to fight terrorism.
"The last time I saw this, not only the high degree of anxiety but people anxious about many things, was the late 1960s," said Tom W. Smith of the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.
Andrew Kohut, who runs the nonpartisan Pew Research Center polls, concurred. "This is not a happy nation. This is an anxious nation," he said. "Terror, economic well-being, health care, values: There's a whole set of worries that are reflected in this election."
Clearly, Bush benefited more than Kerry from the crosscurrents of fear. By 54 percent to 42 percent, voters felt safer from terrorists, and those who did voted 4 to 1 for Bush, according to final exit poll data. Bush enjoyed a 17 percentage point advantage when voters were asked who could be trusted to handle terrorism -- far broader than Kerry's advantage on the economy. Voters considered Bush the stronger leader. Asked what issue mattered most to them, 41 percent cited moral values and terrorism, two areas Bush had made central in the campaign with promises to protect the country and to defend the institution of marriage. By contrast, 35 percent cited the economy and Iraq, the two areas in which Kerry stoked voters' fears.
"Fear of a terrorist attack in particular played a decisive role in determining which candidate people chose," said Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University political scientist. And each side's efforts to make voters afraid of the opposing candidate "is an important factor that drove turnout as high as it did," he added.
George E. Marcus, a political scientist at Williams College, said the election was "a referendum on which anxiety is greater" -- fears about terrorism or economic trouble. Marcus noted that more Democrats supported Bush than Republicans who voted for Kerry. "The cause of it, I think, is anxiety," he said. "When people are anxious . . . that leads to the opportunity for defection."
Bush improved his standing among the elderly and Hispanics, and more voters identified themselves as Republicans. And the exit polls found that more voters listed "moral values" as their top issue (22 percent) than any other -- and 79 percent of those supported Bush. Republican pollster Whit Ayres said that statistic, and the passage of ballot initiatives against same-sex marriage, proved that values have replaced pocketbook issues "as the primary political cleavage" -- splitting secular Democrats from churchgoing Republicans.
But pollsters said such patterns from Tuesday's vote do not appear to signal a shift toward more conservative values or a realignment toward Republicans. "This is probably not about some new way in which the American public has turned," Kohut said. "The long-term trend, the red-blue state divide, is still with us."
The election's main distinction, Kohut said, was the level of worry. He attributed Bush's gains among the elderly and other groups to a fear of terrorism. Kohut noted that 87 percent called the election particularly important, up 20 points from 2000. "People don't come to the conclusion that elections are important unless they're concerned about problems," he said.
In the end, the party that breaks down the divide between blue and red states may be the one that can calm the nation's many fears. Wendy Rahn, director of the Center for the Study of Political Psychology at the University of Minnesota, said the nation is swirling with worries and resentments about terrorism, globalism, economic distress, and cultural struggles between the heartland and coastal elites. "People are more aroused emotionally and they want to attribute their free-floating anxiety to something," she said. "The candidate who can tell the more compelling story about what's at the root of these feelings is more successful."