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American Voters Divided into Two Camps, Find Little Common Ground - 2004-05-03

The 2004 presidential campaign is taking place against a backdrop of the continuing war against terrorism, with ongoing battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recent polls show incumbent U.S. President George W. Bush in a very tight race with Democratic challenger John F. Kerry, a Senator from Massachusetts State. But with more than six months to go before the election, seven out of ten voters say they have already made up their minds about which candidate they will vote for in November. VOA’s Serena Parker reports that American politics is narrowing into two opposing camps – the Reds, or conservatives, and the Blues, or liberals, who see little reason to compromise with one another.

Dean Roper is a native of Camden, Arkansas, who has lived in Darmstadt, Germany for the past nine years ever since his wife was transferred there with her job. Although Dean and his wife are now separated, the 41-year-old says he has no plans to move back to the United States any time soon. As the managing editor of a magazine about the media industry, Dean follows the news, especially American politics. He plans to vote for Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, even though he wasn’t Dean’s first choice. As for President George Bush, Dean says he’s “a maverick” and “puritanical.”

“I think if I hear him say the word ‘evil-doers’ one more time I’m going to scream,” he says. “I don’t know who wrote that for him, but they should be fired immediately. I don’t think he’s ignorant though at the same time I wouldn’t say he’s an intellectual either. As a leader, I would say yes, that he can be decisive, but I would say since 9/11 his decisions boggle the mind from over here.”

Dean Roper was raised in a Protestant family and attended the Methodist Church as a child, but since moving to Germany he hasn’t gone to church. He supports an internationalist foreign policy and thinks the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a mistake. He backs environmentally friendly policies and supports gun control restrictions, abortion rights and gay marriage. Dean Roper is a so-called “blue American.”

“At least Bush has been able to uphold the office with morals, ethics and good character,” says Blake Kovacs, a 27-year-old personal trainer. “And I think that’s the first role of our president. If you can’t do that, then I don’t think it really matters much after that.”

Blake, who has a business degree from the University of Colorado, has lived in Colorado for the past four years. He’s originally from southwest Michigan, a conservative part of the state with a large number of churches, sometimes as many as four on the same block. Blake now attends a Baptist Church and says the Republican Party best represents his views. He supports gun ownership and lower taxes and says the President has done a good job prosecuting the war on terror. He plans to vote for him in November. Blake is a so-called “red” American.

Blake Kovacs and Dean Roper represent opposing sides in 21st century American politics: the Reds, as they may be called, who are conservative and the Blues who are liberal. It is not the first time Americans have split into two camps with conflicting views. The American Civil War was a period of great divide with slave states in the agricultural South fighting free states in the industrialized North. The Great Depression of the 1930’s separated Americans along class and economic lines. In the 1960’s, the Vietnam War drove a wedge between those who supported military action and those against it. At the same time Americans grappled with major social and cultural issues, including the rights of black Americans and women.

Political analysts, politicians and voters agree that today’s divide may be longer lasting. Patrick Basham of the Cato Institute, a Washington-based free-market research organization, says intense media coverage emphasizes the division. The two major political parties reinforce it.

“The reason that it seems bigger or more significant than in the past is that for the first time, or certainly the first time in a long time, the ideological divide is meshing much more effectively with the partisan divide,” he says. “So we have a Republican Party that is largely conservative and a Democratic Party that is largely liberal. So liberal Americans and conservative Americans have more natural partisan homes than they have had for a long time.”

Joel Kotkin teaches public policy at Pepperdine University in California and is the author of a recently published book called The New Geography. He says it’s almost as if we have two countries in the United States that no longer talk to each other. “What’s peculiar about this divide is that in a funny way it’s not taking place at a period of enormous economic or social stress compared to even the 1960’s, but that it’s dividing along lifestyle and cultural and moral and religious issues in a way that I think was never quite the same as it is now,” he says.

According to Joel Kotkin, one of the critical issues dividing the country is religion. In contrast to the industrialized nations of Europe or Asia, religion in America is a persistent social force. “In America, religion plays this very unique role,” he says. “So your attitude toward religion is essentially something that really will tend to drive your political opinion. And voters who go to church are much more apt to support the Republicans that those who don’t. On the other hand, you have this large, very secular group of people, particularly in the large urban areas and particularly on the coasts, for whom religion in some ways is often almost a negative.”

So where does this leave moderate voters? Do they still exist in 21st century American politics? Hans Noel is a political scientist at the University of California in Los Angeles who is working on a paper entitled, “The Road to Red and Blue America.” He says people who are truly in the middle and not aligned have more power than one might think. They make up the so-called swing voters who decide close elections.

“So actually they’re the ones who are determining who becomes president, who gets elected to Congress,” he says. “So they have a lot of power. They don’t get to define the agenda, but they get to decide which agenda we have.”

According to Hans Noel, swing voters are between 10 and 20% of the voting public. Typically less political and less partisan, they may base their vote on their personal standing. Are they working in a job they feel is secure? Do they feel safe from foreign threats? Mr. Noel says if swing voters feel comfortable with their lives, they tend to vote for the incumbent president: “So if the economy is doing well, which it seems like it will be, and if there is no major disaster in Iraq and people are willing to think of Iraq as by and large still successful, which seem to be how most people are looking at it although not everybody and a decreasing group, then that middle group may very well swing to Bush.”

In fact, recent polls show that Americans have serious questions about the way President Bush is handling the war in Iraq. Political analysts agree the current divide in American politics is significant. But as Patrick Basham of the Cato Institute notes, the opposing sides do not threaten to tear the country apart as, say, in the case of the Civil War. “And to some extent the divide reflects the politics of affluence,” he says. “A well-off society can afford to argue about some of the value-based questions that we argue about today that poorer societies don’t have the luxury to argue about.”

According to Patrick Basham, the spirited philosophical and political debate in the United States is healthy -- a sign of a living, vibrant democracy where opposing views are aired freely.