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Pittsburgh The meteorologists tell us that Wednesday morning in southwestern Pennsylvania's largest city will be crisp and sunny with a high of 64. That's about all we know. Being a weather forecast, it offers nothing about the political climate that will have been created by the election the day before.
The outlook is obvious but often overlooked: In a deeply divided nation, on the first dawn after we choose a new leader, every ray of victory's sunshine brings a corresponding thundercloud of defeat and bitterness.
"There are going to be a whole bunch of people who are distraught and who won't know what to do - no matter which side wins," says Chris Ivey, 36, a Pittsburgh filmmaker and ardent Barack Obama supporter. "People will try to go back to their routine, but there's going to be a lot of soul-searching to do."
On Wednesday, roughly half of Americans will awaken to find that the horse they backed disappointed them. That presumes we even have an immediate result; don't forget 2000, when America had to wait more than a month.
Depth of emotion
Yet there is, in the national conversation, surprisingly little talk about not accepting the winner if things don't go your way. Sure, some Democrats joke about moving to Canada, but gauging the severity of responses on the day after is a gauzy exercise in tarot-card reading that even television's loudest mouths rarely discuss.
While the spectrum of possible morning-after reactions runs from water-cooler grousing to partisan lawyering to violence, the depth of sentiment this year - more impassioned, many say, than even the last two elections - could make for a bumpy ride, particularly if the results are close.
This is, after all, the culmination of a political season that saw people weeping at rallies, schoolchildren taking sides and, in one case, a teenager getting shot after trying to remove a sign for John McCain from an Ohio lawn. As David Gergen, a White House adviser during the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations and now a CNN analyst, said on air a couple of weeks ago: "We've got a country now that we're sneering at each other across cultural lines."
Will blacks, craving a victory that could offset the albatross of American racism, accept a negative outcome? Will Christian conservatives who got so energized about Sarah Palin reject the system and grow isolated if she's sent back northward? Will "real America" accept a victory by "Eastern elites," or vice versa? How will Hillary Rodham Clinton's supporters - and the Clintons themselves - emerge from it all?
And the question no one wants to articulate: Will anyone unhappy with the outcome resort to uglier methods of registering disapproval?
Ask around and you'll find partisans casting about to figure out how they'll cope with an undesired outcome.
If Obama wins, says southwestern Virginian and McCain backer Steve Nagel, he'll put nation above politics. "I'm not going to do anything to undermine him," Nagel said last week at a Palin rally in Salem, Va., "I'll support the country." Nearby, though, Julie Thornton of Roanoke expressed trepidation at Democrats' reaction should McCain prevail. "I'm hoping they'll be civil," she said, "but I'm worried."
On the same night a couple hundred miles south, at a rally for Joe Biden in Greensboro, N.C., Obama backer Maureen Mallon wasn't as sanguine. "If we don't get this one right, we ain't ever going to get it right," she said.
"Honestly, we've got a plan," Mallon said. Her husband looked at her and nodded. "I've got family in Ireland," she said. "I don't feel a part of my country if McCain wins."