At dawn on the day after, America was still divided, but with a bolder red and a bluer blue. For the record, the sun did in fact rise on the morning after the Armageddon election. It rose the same for Democrats, angry and depressed, and Republicans, relieved and elated; for people who voted for the first time or for the 12th -- record numbers of them, in any case; for citizens who waited six hours to cast ballots or who zipped in and out in two minutes; for those moved by their hatred of the war in Iraq or by their aversion to same-sex marriage.
For political junkies who stayed awake all night, anxiously awaiting word on what they considered the most important election of their lifetime, and others who fell asleep, television droning on, and even the fellow who only got up to take out the dog -- the sun did in fact rise for all of them.
In the river city of Dubuque, Iowa, deep in the political battleground of the upper Midwest, sunrise came at precisely 6:39 a.m. By then, the wisecrackers in the John Deere Retirees Coffee Club had been awake for an hour and were settled into their Wednesday morning seats, shooting the breeze in the back room of Breezy's Cafe. Hours would pass before Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) conceded defeat, but these old guys knew the final score.
"I can't believe it. I can't believe it!" Walt Pregler, a retired toolmaker, muttered at one end of the gathering, repeating a refrain common among the more than 55 million voters who tried but failed to bring an end to George W. Bush's presidency.
As Pregler's lament continued, Pat Nordhues, known as "the sensitive Republican" in the gathering, rose at the other end of the table and stormed out of Breezy's, an uncomfortable minority there, though not in the country. "The bad thing about it is that you guys are gonna cry like babies for six months 'cause you lost the election," Nordhues bellowed as he walked past Pregler.
Roger Hantelmann, neatly sprinkling sugar on his pancakes and wearing an "OBC" (Old But Cool) baseball cap, laughed at Nordhues and picked up for Pregler and the Democrats.
"Now that Bush doesn't have to run for reelection again, he's gonna really stick it to the working man -- worse than he already has," Hantelmann said. It was enough, he said, to make him sick -- but not enough to make him stop eating pancakes or enjoy living. He'll keep being the river rat out on the Mississippi and teaching line dancing at the retirement center. "I'm not gonna die," Hantelmann said. "Of course, life goes on. We'll muddle through; always have and always will. We're good muddlers."
Hantelmann had not missed an election since John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960. At a nearby table, fellow Dubuquer Terry Lyons, a tree trimmer, was admitting that he had just voted for the first time at age 53. His daughter in West Virginia had been urging him to vote for Bush, and what the television commentators called the "moral issues" had also nagged at him. "You know, getting back to family-oriented things, back to real life, you might say." But what haunted him most was all the talk about this being the most important election of his lifetime. Every time he heard that, he also heard the voice of Mr. Heinz, his parochial school teacher back in fourth grade. "He always told us, 'It's your duty to vote,' " Lyons recalled. "Finally, I listened to him" -- and voted for Bush.
With every infrequent or first-time voter, it seemed, came another reminder that presidential elections are massive, impersonal mathematical computations of millions and millions of intensely personal stories.
For Angie Stafford, 34, an accountant in Tampa, her vote in Florida was a long time coming. She had been denied the right to vote since she was 18 after pleading guilty to a felony because as a teenager she had not turned in her drug-dealing boyfriend. That her candidate, Kerry, lost was secondary to the fact that she had been able to vote at all. "I felt liberated," Stafford said, at the end of a laborious six-month process of petitioning the state to regain her voting rights.
Even as she found Kerry's loss "devastating," the very act of voting gave her a sense of dignity, she said, and awakened in her the power of the individual. "At least I had a voice," she said. When the sun rose for her on the day after, Stafford started thinking about what she could do to make Bush hear her voice. "I thought I'd write him a letter every day. First day: Okay, you're reelected, what about health care? Then, okay, you're reelected, what about job improvement? Do you think the Secret Service would come after me?"
Erin Wecker out in Albuquerque also felt a newfound voice, even though her vote went to the losing side. She is 38 and works for a semiconductor company. She has three children and did not vote last time but felt she had to this year because she hates the war in Iraq. Waiting in line for four hours to vote was worth it, she said. "I did the best I could. I voiced my opinion. . . . If I wasn't standing there in line waiting last night to vote, I couldn't sit here now and [complain] about anything."
Marion Gallagher, 76, had no reason to complain when the sun rose in Minneapolis, where she voted for Bush. Sprightly in red as she sat on a downtown bench, Gallagher beamed, "I've never been so happy in my life. I look at the map and it's all red. I'm singing hallelujah."
"And I'm happier than she is," said her sister, Anna Anderson, 80, also decked out in red.
"I was worried sick," Gallagher said.
"I said Hail Marys," Anderson said.
"And she's not even Catholic," Gallagher said.
Bush, said Anderson, "has higher morals than Kerry. He's never been divorced like Kerry."
Aberfeldy Way in the Kiln Creek subdivision of Yorktown, Va., was always red country, never a battleground such as Minnesota or Iowa or Florida or New Mexico. But here, as in many other neighborhoods and states where the politics were weighted heavily to one side or the other, even though the candidates and their campaign hordes and the television blitzes were far away, the battle was nonetheless just as keenly felt.
A lone Bush-Cheney sign seemed to give voice to an entire neighborhood: Aberfeldy Way was a cul-de-sac nation of Bush supporters. Air Force Capt. Rick Vinditti stayed up into the pre-dawn darkness Wednesday morning waiting to be assured that Bush had won. The 39-year-old father of three had spent six months in Iraq this year and believed in the mission. His wife, Ann Margaret, had been stressed all Election Day, worried that Kerry might win and that "all those soldiers will have died in vain."
The yard sign for Bush belonged to the Vindittis' neighbor, Joe Pollard, who joyously yanked it from the ground Wednesday afternoon after Kerry conceded. Bush's moral clarity had triumphed, Pollard said. "All 11 states with amendments banning same-sex marriage passed. What does that tell you?"
Barbara Smeltzer, a GOP activist in Dubuque, saw the sun rise the morning after from her flag-draped white house on Algona Street. She had fallen asleep with a mixture of joy and disbelief, believing that Bush had won Ohio and the election but not quite ready to accept it as fact until she heard him say it. By that afternoon, back at work at the University of Dubuque, she felt the final sense of relief. Not just that her man had won, but that it was all, finally, done. "I can't remember any election that has been so negative," she said. "The level of hatred and acrimony was just too much. At this point, I am just really tired, and glad it's over."
Teri Goodmann did not see the sun rise in Dubuque. She was still asleep, after collapsing in exhaustion in front of the television sometime after 3 in the morning. This was the end of a long and rewarding two years for Goodmann, even though it ended without a victory. She had been an early Kerry supporter, had hosted him at her house, held countless strategy sessions for him there, and on election night had driven through Dubuque in the chilled darkness with her daughter Elise, 13, hunting for the final votes -- knocking on doors until the polls closed.
When she finally awoke the day after, she had a hard time dealing with a contradiction: the beauty of the democratic process, the exhilaration of the long lines, the new voters, the energy and conviction and hope, and then the sense of loss. "I feel like I was kicked in the stomach," Goodmann said. "But the sun is shining. I guess you just live to fight another day. That's America. Move on. Get ready for 2008. Play ball."
She said she felt sorry for her daughter, who had worked so hard and was taking it harder. But then she looked over at Elise, who was in the living room, drinking a cup of chai with soy milk and stretching on the couch like a cat, a lesson learned, and many lives still to live.
Staff writers Anne Hull in Virginia, Dale Russakoff in Florida, Peter Slevin in Minnesota and Vanessa Williams in New Mexico contributed to this report.