In the end, it came down to a choice between fear and anger.
Throughout his campaign, President Bush traded on fear, the threat of terrorism and a hot war in Iraq. Sen. John Kerry traded on anger -- about the war and job losses -- that was directed squarely toward the president.
The American electorate woke up worked up Tuesday. No one would call this the "era of good feeling." Fear and anger were fighting to a standoff.
Voters in unusually high numbers were clearly motivated by animus more than anything positive about either candidate, a problematic sign for an incumbent asking to be judged on his record. If voters appeared to see Bush metaphorically as an exclamation point, a man of fixed and firm view, they saw Kerry a question mark, a slate credible but largely blank.
Many seemed to cast a vote for Kerry merely because he was not Bush.
"The message is there is a split verdict here on Bush's presidency," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "That's why we have such a divided country. In every swing state nationwide, the president's approval rating is about 51 percent, not much more, not much less."
Bush's campaign theorized that this election was a continuation of the fractious political divide that rendered the notoriously split decision of 2000. Only in the final two weeks of the campaign did the president even make modest appeals to Democrats and swing voters. It was a strategy predicated on holding ground, and as such, one of limited possibilities.
But he didn't need much. No surprise, Bush supporters said terrorism and moral values were their top issues, while Kerry supporters said they were most concerned about the war in Iraq, the economy and jobs. That is precisely the set of themes to which both candidates hewed.
Were he to lose, the president would join a new club, so exclusive that he would be its only member -- incumbents who lost re-election in wartime. The last time the nation was so engaged in conflict during an election was 1968 and in that year the anger was so profound Lyndon Johnson chose not to run.
But this time the anger has been expressed in different ways and for different reasons. Mass demonstrations have been limited. College campuses are not erupting in violence. Still, disenchantment over the war is profound, and people turned to the ballot to express it.
By many measures, Bush should never have been in this position, particularly given the extraordinary support he received after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Incumbents start every campaign with a presumption that they will be re-elected.
Both sides tried to rewrite the rules. Kerry ran a campaign based almost entirely in electability in the primaries and plausibility in the general election. The president tried to make the election about the caricature of Kerry -- too liberal and waffling, even dangerously so. But the election was clearly a referendum on the incumbent.