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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 January, 2005, 16:40 GMT
Analysis: Bush's divided nation
By Steve Schifferes
BBC News

As George W Bush begins his second term in office, he faces a public that is deeply divided over the direction the country - and the world - are heading, and a party system that is even more polarised.

The president faces an uphill struggle in convincing the electorate to support some of his key domestic priorities.

People protesting against gay marriage in San Francisco
How decisive were moral issues in the election?
And there is a wide gulf between his supporters' and opponents' perception of the future of foreign policy.

The differences reflect the divisions not just between Democrats and Republicans, but also among the voters who elected Mr Bush.

He will begin his new term of office with an approval rating of just 50%, the lowest for a returning incumbent since Dwight Eisenhower in 1957.

Foreign policy

Democrats and Republicans are most sharply divided on foreign policy issues.

Democrats are far less hopeful than Republicans about the world situation - and they have become much more pessimistic in the last year.

It's good to know the American people have chosen the man who will not offer to surrender America's freedoms to all and sundry
Dave M, Tonopah, Nevada, USA

Much of that pessimism centres around the situation in Iraq, where a majority of Americans (53%, according to the latest AP poll) believes the country is unlikely to have a stable government.

"Iraq remains the kind of thing that could completely take over the [president's second] term, if the situation gets a lot worse," said political scientist Charles Franklin, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

However, a strong majority of voters backs Mr Bush's doctrine of "pre-emption" - the idea that the US should act abroad first before a terrorist threat materialises at home.

Role of religion

Mr Bush is expected to concentrate more on domestic issues in the second term.

The most controversial issue on his agenda is the question over new appointments to the Supreme Court, the final arbiter of US law.

How deep are the partisan divides in Bush's America?

New judges might change the orientation of the court, particularly on issues such as abortion.

This would particularly appeal to another element in the Republican coalition, Christian evangelicals.

There has been much debate about the role of religion in Mr Bush's victory, and particularly whether Christian conservatives tipped the scales in his favour.

Early opinion polls suggested a plurality of voters chose moral issues as the most important factor in how they voted - more than terrorism or the war in Iraq.

They went for a more straight-talking, tougher-sounding candidate, and while moral issues and religion played the important role it typically does, I don't believe it was the decisive role
Andrew Kohut, Pew Research Center
And there is no doubt that religion is a key dividing line in US politics.

"Religious belief, degree of religious observance, moral values or principles, if you will, seems to be the real cleaving demographic [divide] in this electorate, and it has been really since the 1980s," according to Michael Barone, author of the Almanac of American Politics.

Higher turnout

But a closer analysis of the results showed that turnout rose sharply among all groups of the electorate, not just evangelical Christians.

Turnout was up by 6.4% to 60.7%, the highest level since 1968, as both parties drew out many more supporters than in 2000.

Mr Bush won more support from Catholics and Latinos than before.

Meanwhile, other religious groups - such as mainstream, non-evangelical Protestants - moved closer to the Democratic party.

These results suggest that it was the perception of Mr Bush as a strong leader, rather than his views on abortion, that did most to boost his election bid.

"In a time of trouble I think they went for a more straight-talking, tougher-sounding candidate, and while moral issues and religion played an important role... I don't believe it was the decisive role," said Andrew Kohut, head of the Pew Research Center.

That suggests that the after-effects of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, and the perceived advantage of Mr Bush on this issue, was decisive.

Divided parties, not nation

In the 2000 election, many analysts saw a nation split down the middle - with Democrats increasingly concentrated in urban, coastal regions, with liberal values, while Republicans were more rural, southern or Middle Western, and held conservative values on issues like gun control and abortion.

The second-term Bush administration will have a choice whether to appeal to the moderate centre or to its more ideologically committed supporters
That division has persisted in this election - for example, Senator Kerry carried urban areas by 56% to 43%, while President Bush won 56% of rural votes - but it was less marked than in 2000.

In big cities, Democrats are still ahead by two to one, but Mr Bush's share of the vote rose by 11%.

In looking at the election map of the US broken down county by county, what is striking is not so much the "red" and "blue" states as the purple blur in the middle where partisans of both parties are evenly matched.

And the political views of many Americans are equally mixed - with the majority calling themselves "moderates" and the majority holding moderate views on issues like abortion and gay marriage.

The parties are far more polarised than their supporters.

Polling of delegates during the Republican and Democratic conventions showed that they were far more likely to support extreme positions - such as an outright ban on gay marriage or complete freedom of choice on abortion - than the country as a whole.

The second-term Bush administration will have a choice whether to reach out to the moderate centre or to appeal to its more ideologically committed supporters.

And that may well determine whether the divisions among the electorate become deeper in the future.


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