Sat, 11 Nov 2000

Tight vote highlights deep U.S. societal divisions

By Peter Sisler

WASHINGTON (DPA): The focus on the extraordinarily close, and undetermined, presidential election vote count in Florida has drawn attention away from the broader reality cloaked in the national vote -- Americans are deeply divided on important social issues and the gap is widening.

Exit polling results in the election between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush show the country essentially split along gender, racial, geographic, religious and class lines.

Democratic and Republican voters increasingly live in different places, have different income levels, have different marital status, and hold sharply contrasting views on hot button issues such as gun control and abortion.

The biggest and most obvious divisions are found on racial lines. A huge difference is found between black and white voters, with blacks supporting Gore by an overwhelming 90 percent while Bush gained just 9 percent of that group.

The division was less pronounced among Hispanics who voted with a 62 percent margin for Gore to 35 percent for Bush, who had claimed he was popular among Hispanics due to his role as the Texas governor.

White voters, comprising 81 percent of the national electorate, supported Bush by a 54-42 percent margin with much of that difference coming from the remarkable gender gap between women and men.

Bush was the favorite among male voters by 53-43 percent, while females voted for Gore in even stronger numbers, supported the Democrat by a 54-42 percent margin. Women make up a 4 percent larger segment of the electorate.

The gender gap points to vast divide on the abortion issue and other concerns such as health care, Medicare and prescription drug price reductions which are higher priorities for women than men.

An overwhelming majority of Democrats, 71 percent, believe abortions should remain legal. Republicans believe by a 56 percent margin that abortions should be illegal most or all of the time.

The other most obvious divide is between urban and rural residents with far different election results coming from voters in each area. Urban voters supported Gore by more than 60 percent while a nearly equal number of rural voters, 59 percent, cast their votes for Bush. Those classified as suburban voters were equally divided.

"We have two massive, colliding forces," said Bill McInturff, a Republican poll-watcher. "One is rural, Christian, religiously conservative, with guns at home, terribly unhappy with (President Bill) Clinton's behavior.

"And we have a second America that is socially tolerant, pro- choice, secular, living in New England and the Pacific coast, and in affluent suburbs," said McInturff.

Class wealth also formed a significant divide in the electorate but it was not as indicative of party affiliation has it had been in the past. Traditionally lower income groups have voted strongly for Democrats while wealthier voters support Republicans.

In this election, those with under US$30,000 of annual income supported Gore by a 56-40 percent margin. Persons with incomes over $100,000 annually voted for Bush in an 54-34 percent margin, reflecting his appeal among the wealthy who were expecting tax cuts under a Republican administration.

Although the class wealth, gender and racial divides between Republicans and Democrats have been found in most U.S. elections, analysts said these divisions were widening and growing more intractable.

For example, in the 1980 election when Republican Ronald Reagan defeated Democrat Jimmy Carter, men supported Reagan by a small 51-49 percent margin.

In that 1980 election, rural residents voted Republican much less avidly, 52-48 percent, than they did this year by an overwhelming 59-37 percent margin.

Rather than reflecting on particular characteristics of the candidates, both Bush and Gore ran as moderates, the numbers point to much deeper societal divisions found on social and moral concerns.

The election numbers indicate the United States is increasingly drifting into two distinct camps with little common political ground to be found between the rural and urban, rich and poor, black and white and religious or non-sectarian.

The political union and faith in the U.S. democratic system appears to be holding steady through an extremely difficult election but the signs of two American societies co-existing but talking past each other are difficult to ignore.