Published: November 1, 2004
As of this writing, the race between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry is tied. Not a virtual tie, but a tie. My daily tracking polls are eerily reminiscent of the 2000 polls. But unlike what happened in 2000, American voters will pass judgment on an incumbent president in an atmosphere that is more polarised than at any time in recent history.
I have been calling this the "Armageddon election" for several months. The political divide in the country today is as wide as the lack of respect in public discourse. The rhetoric is nasty and not limited to the candidates. US News and World Report last week related how politics is now splitting families and neighbourhoods. So intent are most voters on supporting or opposing the president that not even the attempt by Osama bin Laden to influence the election through a video appearance on Friday appears to have had an impact.
Perhaps most ominous is the disappearance of what Arthur Schlesinger Jr and James MacGregor Burns, the eminent historians, describe as the "vital centre" in the American polity, which acts as a buffer against extremes and allows candidates to temper their messages. This centre - generally about 30-35 per cent of the electorate - stands as an inbuilt warning to both Democrats and Republicans that another side must be part of the process at all times. When either major party, or both, loses its grounding with this vital centre, a Ross Perot or John McCain emerges to lend the centre critical mass.
This year, my polling shows that since March, more than 90 per cent of American voters have firmly decided on their candidate. Last spring - normally an election year period in which 20-25 per cent of voters are undecided and another 20 per cent are still soft, not entirely sure - only 5 per cent were undecided and 5-6 per cent were soft.
Let us examine the artificial construct we have been using: the "red states" which voted Bush in 2000 and the "blue states" which supported Al Gore in 2000. I say "artificial" because some states tilted on the basis of just a few hundred or few thousand votes. More than half the red state voters (54 per cent) say they attend a place of worship at least weekly - a key conservative voting barometer. Only 32 per cent of blue state voters told us the same. The vast majority of red state voters see God as one who punishes evil, while a huge majority of blue state voters see their God as loving and tolerant. On guns, another emotional issue, nearly 60 per cent of red state voters own guns while in the blue states, only 35 per cent do.
In short, America votes on Tuesday as two warring nations, split geographically, ideologically, spiritually and even demographically. Whoever wins will face half a nation filled with anger, which will support months of court challenges. Yet both sides want victory in the war on terrorism, universal healthcare coverage, social security reform and so on. It is hard to believe from watching this campaign that there is a common agenda set by voters.
The next president must find this agenda in the ruins of the ugly rhetoric. He must also heal deep divisions between the political parties on Capitol Hill. In the traditionally genteel Senate, where the conservative icon Barry Goldwater used to play racquetball with the noted liberal George McGovern, the love appears to be lost as both parties shun each other like never before. Ultimately, the next president must be, in the words of Mr Bush himself in 2000, a real "uniter, not a divider".
Fortunately there is a precedent: the election of 1800 was even uglier, if one can imagine. The campaign took place amid a war supported by only half the nation, and as alien and sedition laws threatened both immigrants and those who opposed the administration. The country was equally divided geographically as well as ideologically, economically and culturally. More importantly, each side claimed to represent the true mantle of the American Revolution and each was convinced that if the other won, it would be the end of the Republic. There was no margin for disagreement.
The election was resolved in the House of Representatives, where an overwhelming majority of the Federalists of John Adams, the incumbent president, had to choose between two hated Democratic Republicans, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Jefferson was elected on the 36th ballot, just before the scheduled inauguration.
The ardent party founder and ideologue yielded to the pragmatic politician and steered a middle course. He set the tone in one of the greatest of US inaugural addresses: "We are all Federalists. We are all Republicans", Jefferson proclaimed, urging Americans to build on common ground.
Tough, nasty campaigns can still produce statesmen. That said, my endorsement in 2004 comes easily. I want Thomas Jefferson - or rather, his spirit - to win. In reality, the race is too close to call. But my hunch is still that the few undecided voters will break against the incumbent, as they usually do. The late trend is toward Mr Kerry and there are a number of doomsday scenarios: another popular vote win and electoral college loss, a tie in the electoral college or no clear winner on election day.
The nation will endure, no matter who wins or how. But the extreme partisanship that has spread from the Capitol to Main Street could threaten the common agenda supported by most Americans. The new president must above all move beyond the Reds vs Blues, Metros vs Retros, and Democrats vs Republicans. Americans deserve it.
The writer is president and chief executive of Zogby International