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The National Fissure Remains Deep and Wide

Times Staff Writer

After four turbulent and tumultuous years, President Bush expanded his support but still divided the country along many of the same lines as in his narrow and disputed victory in 2000, exit polls of voters found Tuesday night.

With the final result in Ohio on hold until officials counted large numbers of provisional ballots, Bush stood on the brink of victory over Democrat Sen. John F. Kerry in another photo-finish election that sharpened the cultural divides that have increasingly defined American politics over the last generation.

With Republicans maintaining control of both chambers of Congress, Bush could be in position to aggressively press his agenda if the final states fall his way.

Whichever way the race tilts in the end, the result in the presidential race appears to have changed remarkably little from the historically narrow split in 2000. When all the votes are counted, it appears possible that as few as three or four states may switch from one party to the other since the last election.

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Once again the electoral map was starkly separated into red and blue, with Bush dominating the South, the Great Plains and the mountain West and Kerry, like Al Gore in 2000, romping through the Northeast and the Pacific coast. The Midwest remained the most contested, with Kerry clinging to a narrow lead in Wisconsin and Bush slightly ahead in Iowa. The president was holding a larger lead in Ohio -- but one that Democrats said could still be reversed by provisional ballots yet to be counted. The race underscored the strength of the regional and cultural divisions shaping modern American politics. After losing the popular vote in 2000, Bush appeared certain to win it this time, and likely to become the first president since 1988 to cross the 50% vote threshold.

But exit polls gauging voter sentiment showed that though he continued to enjoy overwhelming support from his conservative base, he had made only limited progress at expanding his reach among voters beyond it.

Just as in 2000, Bush on Tuesday mobilized a massive coalition of culturally conservative Americans, centered on married families, rural voters, and people who own guns or attend church regularly, according to a nationwide Times exit poll of voters leaving polling places.

On all of these fronts, according to the national Times exit poll, and surveys in the three largest battleground states by the National Election Pool, Kerry’s coalition represented the mirror image of Bush’s: He ran best among singles, urban voters and those who don’t own guns or attend church regularly. Kerry also received a big boost from first-time voters, most of them young people, who tilted sharply in his direction, the Times Poll found.

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Since 2000, Bush made gains among some groups -- particularly Latinos and women without a college education. But the survey showed he lost ground among college-educated voters and young people. As those groups shifted sides, the country appeared to sort along cultural lines even more consistently than it did in the last election.

The Times Exit Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, interviewed 5,154 voters nationwide as they left 136 precincts. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.

The exit polls conducted by Edison/Mitofsky for the National Election Pool surveyed 1,963 voters in Ohio, 1,258 in Pennsylvania and 2,846 in Florida. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points in each state.

The two coalitions displayed starkly diverging priorities. In the Times exit poll, more than half of Bush’s voters cited moral issues as a principal reason for their support -- more than any other issue, including even terrorism. By contrast, nearly half of Kerry voters named the economy as their top concern -- nearly double the number that picked moral issues.

The National Election Pool’s exit polls in Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, the three most hotly contested battlegrounds, recorded a similar pattern. In Ohio, more Bush voters picked moral values as their top concern than any other issue; in Florida and Pennsylvania, it ranked second only to terrorism. In all three states, the economy ranked as the top concern for Kerry voters, followed by the war in Iraq.

After a campaign in which Bush unwaveringly stressed his resolve, his supporters in both the national and battleground state polls, not surprisingly, picked strong leadership as the personal quality that mattered most in their decision.

In the national poll, more than half of Bush supporters cited leadership and picked honesty and values as the next most important choices.

In the state surveys, those qualities figured prominently as well, along with one other: between one-eighth and nearly one-fifth of Bush supporters in the big three states cited his religious faith as an important reason for their support.

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Strikingly, Kerry’s supporters were more indifferent in picking the personal qualities important in their decision. Kerry backers did not cite any single attribute nearly as often as Bush supporters picked leadership.

In the national survey, the most common trait that Kerry supporters praised was his empathy, a traditional Democratic advantage; but only about one-fourth of them picked that.

In contrast to the Bush supporters’ focus on personal qualities, the next most common response among Kerry backers was the belief that he could increase respect for America around the world.

The state surveys told a similar story. Asked what personal quality of Kerry’s they most admired, nearly half of his supporters in all three big battlegrounds said it was his perceived ability to bring change -- a response that focused more on his policy ideas than his individual characteristics.

Those numbers hint at another striking finding in the surveys. More than 80% of Bush voters in the national survey described their vote as a vote for the president; only about one in six said they had backed the president to make a statement against Kerry.

But only a slight majority of Kerry voters said they made their decision primarily because they liked him; nearly half said it was motivated by opposition to Bush. The contrast was similar, if not quite as pronounced, in the three big state surveys.

Faith in Bush’s personal qualities appeared to help him recover from verdicts on his policy decisions that were equivocal at best, the surveys found. In the national poll, voters split about in half on Bush’s performance as president.

A majority said they did not believe the situation in Iraq justified the war; most said they believed the country was not better off because of Bush’s policies and needed to move in a new direction. More said they believed his policies had hurt, rather than helped, the economy.

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These judgments hurt Bush among swing voters, the survey found. Four years ago, Bush carried independents in the Times exit survey; but this time they gave Kerry a slight edge in the survey. Likewise, Kerry led with voters who considered themselves moderates.

But Kerry could not crack Bush’s strongholds, both demographically and geographically.

With his win in Florida, the president captured every state of the old Confederacy plus Oklahoma and Kentucky for the second consecutive election; those 13 states gave him 62% of the electoral college votes he needs for victory. Indeed, Bush’s strength helped power Republican Senate victories in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia that ensured the GOP’s continued control of the upper chamber.

Bush remained extremely strong with the same culturally conservative groups that made up the core of his coalition in 2000.

In the national Times survey, he won nearly three-fifths of rural voters and married voters, and slightly more than three-fifths of gun owners. Kerry, conversely, ran up big margins with singles, urban voters, and those who didn’t own guns.

Most strikingly, just as in 2000, church attendance proved a far better predictor of the vote than income.

Kerry ran well among voters earning less than $40,000 annually. But after that, voters’ preference didn’t change much as their income rose: Kerry and Bush ran about even among voters earning more than $100,000 annually.

By sharp contrast, Bush won nearly two-thirds of voters who attended church once a week or more; those who attended church less often, or never, gave Kerry about three-fifths of their vote. Among white voters who attended church at least once a week, Bush won more than 70% of the vote.

If Bush benefited from mobilizing his socially conservative base, Kerry was boosted by a big turnout among the new voters his campaign targeted. About one in nine of those who cast ballots were new voters, and they gave Kerry a solid majority.

These first-time voters were much more negative than the electorate overall on the country’s direction -- and, the Times Poll found, much more eager than all voters to reverse Bush’s policy direction.

Most of those new voters were people ages 18 to 29; their share of the electorate increased from just under one in six last time, to just over one in five in 2004.

And though young voters have usually divided in presidential races in numbers similar to the nation overall, this time they broke much more sharply for Kerry than older voters.

Some other familiar divides in the electorate were less pronounced.

The gender gap between men and women was modest both in the national Times survey and in the big three battleground state exit polls. The Times Poll found that Bush succeeded at one of his strategists’ top goals during the past four years, to increase his vote among Latinos.

One of the most intriguing trends was the increased tendency of voters to divide along cultural rather than economic lines.

Kerry improved on Gore’s showing from 2000 among voters with a college education; and even though Kerry stressed themes of middle class economic populism, Bush carried a majority of voters without college degrees, the survey found.

Relative to 2000, Bush’s gains were especially pronounced among married women without college degrees, who have been receptive both to his peace through strength and conservative social messages.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Bush and Kerry voters were poles apart

John F. Kerry and George W. Bush voters saw the issues driving the election, especially the war in Iraq, through different lenses. Bush voters wanted the country to continue the policies of the president, while Kerry voters wanted to steer the country in a new direction. Bush voters also believed the war in Iraq was worth fighting, while Kerry voters said it was not worth it.

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Q. Because of George W. Bush’s economic policies, is the country:

Among Bush voters

Better off 79%

Worse off 7%

About the same 14%

Among Kerry voters

Better off 5%

Worse off 90%

About the same 5%

*

Q. Do you think the situation in Iraq was:

Among Bush voters

Worth going to war over 85%

Not worth going to war over 15%

Among Kerry voters

Worth going to war over 11%

Not worth going to war over 89%

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Q. Do you support your presidential choice today mostly because you:

Among Bush voters

Like your candidate 83%

Are voting against his opponent 17%

Among Kerry voters

Like your candidate 55%

Are voting against his opponent 45%

*

Q. When did you decide on your presidential vote?

Among Bush voters

Today/yesterday 7%

Over the weekend 1%

Before the weekend 32%

Always knew 60%

Among Kerry voters

Today/yesterday 8%

Over the weekend 2%

Before the weekend 56%

Always knew 34%

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Q. What did you like most about your choice for president? (up to two replies are accepted)

Among Bush voters

Strong leader 55%

Shares my values 24%

Cares about people like me 17%

Will keep country safe from terrorism 19%

Among Kerry voters

Strong leader 18%

Shares my values 21%

Cares about people like me 26%

Will keep country safe from terrorism 5%

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Q. What issues, if any, were most important to you in deciding how you would vote for president today? (up to two replies were accepted)

Among Bush voters

Moral/ethical values 52%

Jobs/the economy 18%

Terrorism/homeland security 45%

Situation in Iraq 11%

Among Kerry voters

Moral/ethical values 26%

Jobs/the economy 47%

Terrorism/homeland security 13%

Situation in Iraq 21%

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Q. Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president?

Among Bush voters

Approve 96%

Disapprove 4%

Among Kerry voters

Approve 7%

Disapprove 93%

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Q. Is the country better off because of George W. Bush’s policies and should it continue in the direction he set out, or does it need a new direction?

Among Bush voters

Continue policies of George W. Bush 92%

Needs a new direction 8%

Among Kerry voters

Continue policies of George W. Bush 2%

Needs a new direction 98%

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NOTE: based on preliminary exit poll results.

How the poll was conducted: The Los Angeles Times Poll interviewed 5,154 voters who cast ballots in the general election Tuesday as they exited 136 polling places across the nation including 3,333 California voters as they exited 50 polling places across the state. Precincts were chosen based on the pattern of turnout in past primary elections. The survey was a self-administered, confidential questionnaire, in English and in Spanish. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for all voters, including California voters. For some subgroups, the error margin may be somewhat higher. Fieldwork provided by Schlesinger Associates of Edison, New Jersey and Davis Research of Calabasas, Calif.

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Source: Times Poll


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