A presidential election going to the mattresses, a Senate evenly split and a House with a majority margin of seven to nine, depending on recounts–not surprisingly, the talking heads prate on about a nation divided. Whoever becomes President, the conventional wisdom holds, has no mandate and must seek bipartisan cooperation, as both parties vie for the center of a generally stable and satisfied country.
No one can deny the partisan divide in the country. As analyst Mike Lux points out, even the state legislatures are closely contested. In forty-six, a pickup of five seats or less would change party control. An election night survey by Gore pollster Stan Greenberg for the Campaign for America’s Future showed that 40 percent of voters never considered voting for Bush, while 39 percent never considered voting for Gore. Nor is the suffocating consensus that has characterized the Clinton years in doubt. Fundamental questions facing the country–globalization, global warming, the yawning divide between rich and poor, the lack of affordable healthcare, the failed drug war–were off the table during the campaign, raised, if at all, only by Ralph Nader.
Yet beneath the party divide and the centrist consensus are trends that hold promise for progressives. As Kevin Phillips, chronicler of the “emerging conservative majority” of the 1970s, noted, 52 percent of the popular vote went to Gore and Nader. This is the largest center-left vote since Lyndon Johnson’s victory over Barry Goldwater. The politically challenged Al Gore got more votes than heralded campaign maestro Bill Clinton ever did. And Gore was far less popular personally than were his message and his issues. The Campaign for America’s Future poll compared the two major candidates’ central arguments: Gore’s investing to make prosperity work for all versus Bush’s trust the people and give them some of their money back. Voters favored Gore’s “message” by 54 percent to Bush’s 37 percent. On specific issues, Gore’s position did even better–whether it was investing in public education over vouchers, Medicare coverage for prescription drugs rather than Bush’s subsidies to HMOs or investing the surplus rather than Bush’s tax cuts. The national exit poll showed that voters who thought issues most important voted for Gore 55 to 40 percent. This liberal trend was also reflected in the fate of state initiatives: Voters rejected vouchers in California and Michigan, for example, while passing gun control in the “pro-gun” states of Oregon and Colorado. Most striking, Californians revolted against the drug war’s lock-’em-up policies, with a large majority voting to require treatment, not prison, for those convicted of possession of any illegal drug.
The election also displayed the growing vitality of the progressive base of the Democratic Party. Unions ran an unprecedented voter mobilization program, and union households, a remarkable 26 percent of the entire electorate, voted almost 2 to 1 for Gore. African-Americans were 10 percent of the total–and far higher in battleground states; they voted 9 to 1 for Gore. Latinos accounted for as much as 7 percent and voted nearly 2 to 1 for Gore. Pro-choice women were central to Gore’s eleven-point margin among women, in a year with a record gender gap. Single women–19 percent of the electorate–preferred Gore by a thirty-one-point margin. And, of course, for all the talk about upscale voters, Democrats–even Al Gore and Joe Lieberman–do better among poor voters and worse as income rises.