Four years later, nation still split over president

By Helen Kennedy
April 29, 2004

Three days before the 2000 election, with George Bush and Al Gore neck and neck, baffled pollster John Zogby tried an experiment.

If you were a citizen of Oz, his analysts asked, would you pick the Scarecrow or the Tin Man for mayor?
Given the choice between a candidate with no brains but heart and one with no heart but brains, respondents returned a remarkable answer: 46.2 percent versus 46.2 percent.

“That told me everything I needed to know: that I wasn’t going to know who was going to win this election,” Zogby said.

Four years on, perhaps the most surprising thing is that nothing has changed _ even after a cataclysmic, unifying event like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“We are now no different than we were Nov. 8, 2000. It’s like 9/11 never happened,” he said.

Half the country loves Bush, half the country can’t stand him. Some pollsters say the pool of undecided voters is smaller than ever.

“We have not seen this split since the Civil War,” Zogby said. “We’re at stalemate.”

“We had an unparalleled period of national unity after the 9/11 attacks,” said Pew Research Center Director Andrew Kohut. “But the way of dealing with the attacks war in Iraq became the issue that divided us again.”
Not only is the nation divided 50-50, but the electoral college is, too, with a few big liberal states counterbalanced by numerous small conservative states.

Americans are also more hardened in their views now than in recent memory. Demographers and political scientists say they haven’t seen an electorate so partisan in 50 years.

The Gallup poll found 91 percent of Republicans approve of the job Bush is doing, while only 17 percent of Democrats agree the largest gap since Gallup began gauging job approval in 1948.

“This remains a country that is almost evenly divided politically yet further apart than ever in its political values,” a Pew Research Center survey of historical opinion polls concluded.

Pollster Scott Rasmussen said the explosion of media options in the last decade has helped polarize opinion. Voters seek out compatible news outlets online and on cable right-wingers to Fox, liberals to CNN.

“We don’t listen to opposing views anymore,” he said.

That makes for a political chasm that seems unbridgeable.
“You ask Republicans about the economy, they say it’s good and getting better. You ask Democrats, they say it’s poor and getting worse,” Rasmussen said. “They’ve learned the scripts.”

The Pew Research Center estimates the number of swing voters those who are undecided or only leaning toward one candidate at about 30 percent. Zogby’s estimate is much smaller: closer to 5 percent.

Such hardened opinions explain why a fearsome surge in casualties in Iraq this month and growing questions about the Bush administration’s commitment to fighting terrorism before Sept. 11, 2001, had little influence on recent polls.

It’s also why Bush’s $50 million ad blitz failed to demolish Sen. John Kerry, and why recent positive economic news hasn’t boosted Bush.

“Every now and then a news story breaks that puts one of them ahead for a few days, but it always comes back to the same tie,” Rasmussen said.

“After the way things ended four years ago,” he said, “everybody is on hold, just waiting for a rematch.”

Posted to the web by: Jonelle Haykel

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Helen Kennedy

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