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In the end, an election that was supposed to be about all the ways we are divided at least brought us together at 193,000 polling places in democracy's messy leap of faith. Turnout was huge even in states where the result was assured. In Ohio the polls closed at 7:30, but the lines were so long that people were still voting at midnight. Some people admitted they just did not want to face their neighbors or their children at the end of the day and say they had not bothered to show up. Others said if you don't vote, you can't complain and did not want to be mute at a time like this. In the end, polls suggested that the single issue that mattered most was not the Iraq war or terrorism, not the economy, but the questions of values that simmered beneath the headlines throughout the campaign.
If the outcome still showed a public divided, it produced a government somewhat less so. Thanks to their sweeping victories Tuesday, the Republicans ensured that the very real challenges facing Bush in a second term--from Iraq as it heads toward elections, to entitlements as they drift toward insolvency, to Supreme Court appointments and the social issues that most deeply divide the public--would be addressed by a party with a rare monopoly of power in all three branches of government and a mandate, however slim, that did not exist four years ago. All of which points to the great mystery ahead: With re-election no longer the organizing principle of George Bush's presidency, what will guide his next four years, when the only judge left is history?
For a president who loves the game and knew this was his last campaign, Bush sounded on Tuesday morning like a man at peace. "This election is in the hands of the people," he said after he voted, "and I feel very comfortable with that." He was host of a gin-rummy tournament on Air Force One as he headed from Crawford back to the White House to wait out the results. It was on the plane that strategist Karl Rove started calling around to get the results of early exit polls. But the line kept breaking down. The only information that came through as the plane descended was a BlackBerry message from an aide that simply read: "Not good." Not long afterward, Rove got a more detailed picture and told the President and senior aides the bad news. Florida Governor Jeb Bush had been saying the state was looking good, and the Bush team had expected to be ahead in Ohio. But Kerry was leading everywhere. "I wanted to throw up," said an aide onboard. Bush was more philosophical: "Well, it is what it is," he told adviser Karen Hughes. On the ground in Arlington, Va., that afternoon, chief strategist Matthew Dowd was walking around Bush campaign headquarters looking like a "scientist whose formulas were all wrong," said a top Bush staff member. Dowd had designed the strategy for targeting voters, and the exit polls were undermining his every theory. It would take him six long hours to crack the code. When the actual vote counts started coming in at 8 p.m., Dowd noticed that in South Carolina, Virginia and Florida the numbers were what the Republicans expected them to be; the President was outperforming the exit polls. "We've got to go talk to the press. The exit polls are wrong," Dowd said.