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Over the course of the Clinton presidency, the American public became very polarized. One camp hated the president and his wife; the other camp supported them. The division was widely viewed as a commentary on the Clintons -- and nothing more.

During the 2000 campaign, conservatives' animosity toward President Clinton largely shifted to his vice president, Al Gore, much as a refrigerator might convey from one homeowner to the next upon the sale of a house. Many Republicans came to hate Gore almost as much as they despised Clinton. And Democrats put aside their misgivings about the lackluster vice president and supported him at the ballot box in even higher percentages than they had Clinton.

Over the last three years, it has become apparent that the nation's polarization far transcends people's feelings about the Clintons. Now, virtually every statement by a prominent Republican or Democrat becomes a partisan Rorschach test, interpreted one way by Democratic voters and the opposite way by Republicans. And so, in watching President Bush's news conference Tuesday night, Republicans most likely saw a strong and resolute president, while Democrats probably saw a president who is in way over his head and has made U.S. foreign policy into his own personal disaster area. The same event, the same words, triggered radically different interpretations.

Anyone who spent time in March in the 18 "purple" states -- the ones considered up for grabs in this presidential election -- endured a Dresden-like bombardment of anti-John Kerry campaign ads by the Bush campaign.

Those brutal ads had limited impact, according to polling by the National Annenberg Election Survey. In the first half of March, when the air assault was just beginning, 40 percent of voters nationwide viewed Kerry favorably. In the second half of the month, 39 percent gave him a favorable rating. Meanwhile, Kerry's unfavorable ratings increased 4 points -- to 28 percent. In the purple states, Kerry's favorable rating dropped 2 points -- to 39 percent -- and his unfavorable rating rose by a single point -- to 29 percent.

Why didn't the Bush campaign's tough ads do more damage to Kerry? Some political strategists who are privy to more-detailed polling suggest that Kerry's unfavorable ratings in purple states did surge in March -- but mainly among Republicans. The ads had little impact on independents, and even less on Democrats. Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz describes that phenomenon as "reinforcing voters' partisan predispositions." My hunch is that Bush's news conference had the same effect.

Likewise, the Democratic presidential candidates' vilification of Bush early this year halted his popularity bounce that followed the capture of Saddam Hussein, but Bush's ratings essentially returned to where they had been in mid-November. Democratic voters settled back into their camp, and Republicans into theirs.

With two evenly divided and extremely polarized parties, and with most independent voters paying little attention, the 2004 presidential contest may well hinge on whatever grabs the nation's attention in the last weeks of the campaign, when independents finally get engaged -- if they ever do. The situation in Iraq in late October, the health of the economy, or whatever the hot issue is on the campaign trail could tip the balance.

Heading into the final week of the 2000 campaign, virtually all of the public polls indicated that Bush was holding a small but steady lead over Gore. Yet on Election Day, Gore won the popular vote by one-half of a percentage point, 500,000 votes out of 104 million cast. The only intervening event that plausibly could have affected that race was the news report that two decades earlier Bush had been arrested in Maine for driving under the influence. When that story broke, it seemed inconsequential. In retrospect, it probably cost Bush the popular vote -- and very nearly the election.

Tiny story, major impact. And that is where our evenly divided, highly polarized electorate takes the nation -- to photo-finish races in which small, late-breaking events can have enormous consequences.

Jobs reports, the rising death toll in Iraq, barrages of negative advertisements -- none of these seem to sway the race much, because so many voters are locked into place. But as purple-state TV viewers can attest, millions and millions of campaign dollars are being spent trying to pry voters loose.

 
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