U.S. elections | Presidential race exposes America’s ‘perilous’ divides

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The yawning divisions could threaten the next President’s ability to manage multiple crises — from virus to economic woes

Presidential elections can be revealing moments that convey the wishes of the American people to the next wave of elected officials. So far, the big reveal in the contest between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is the extent of the cavernous divide between Republican and Democratic America, one that defines the nation, no matter which candidate ultimately wins.

Voters from both parties turned out in droves to pick the next President, but as they did so, they found little agreement about what that President should do. Democrats and Republicans prioritised different issues, lived in different communities and even voted on different kinds of ballots.

Whoever emerges as the winner, that division ensures that the next President will face significant gridlock in Congress, scepticism about the integrity of the vote and an agitated electorate increasingly divided by race, education and geography. Even the vote count threatens to split Americans.

"Except for the Civil War, I don’t think we’ve lived through any time as perilous as this in terms of the divisions,” said historian Barbara Perry, the director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Even after the 2000 election, when the Supreme Court ultimately intervened on Republican George W. Bush’s behalf, Democrat Al Gore quickly conceded and congressional leaders found areas of agreement on Capitol Hill.

The yawning divides will threaten the next President’s ability to manage multiple crises — daily coronavirus infections set a record this week, the economy is struggling to recover from the pandemic and many Americans are pressing for a reckoning on racial injustices.

Trump and Biden voters, however, express strikingly different views on those challenges, according to AP VoteCast. Biden voters overwhelming say they want the federal government to prioritise limiting the spread of the virus, even if that means further damage to the economy. But most Trump voters preferred an approach that focused on the economy.

About half of Trump voters also called the economy and jobs the top issue, while only 1 in 10 Biden voters named it most important.

To bridge the gap

Mr. Biden has tried to bridge this gap, often appealing to a sense of national unity and the “soul” of America. Mr. Trump often casts himself as a defender of his voters. He has threatened to withhold pandemic-related aid from States run by Democratic Governors and disparaged cities run by Democrats.

Many Democrats desperately hoped that Mr. Trump would suffer an embarrassing defeat that would serve as a clear repudiation of Mr. Trump and his brand of politics.

At the very least, they wanted an unambiguous mandate that would allow Mr. Biden to pursue ambitious policies on health care, education and the economy.

Mr. Trump may lose, but strong GOP turnout in battlegrounds and unexpectedly solid victories for Republican candidates in Senate and House races made Tuesday far from a thumping.

“There’s certainly not a clarion call to go in one direction or another. There’s a lot of confusion and chaos,” said civil rights leader Martin Luther King II.

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