I have voted in 14 presidential elections since my first, in 1960. Each time the candidates or their surrogates have told me "this is the most important election of your lifetime."
Well, this week we will finally have the election that actually fits that description. There has never been an election in my voting lifetime that will have a greater impact on our lives, one that will last well beyond the next four years.
That is why it is extra important to vote Tuesday. But you have a responsibility beyond to help unite the country afterwards because on issue after issue, the candidates and the two parties they represent have laid out very different plans for what they want the country to look like for the balance of the twenty-first century. If you don't believe that, just go to the Republican and Democratic Party websites and read the platforms each adopted at their recent conventions.
Those platforms and the candidates' starkly different positions reflect an electorate that is nearly equally divided. The polls all predict a very close election, one that may well end up with the popular vote in something like a 51-49 percent range either way.
Which came first, the deep divide among voters or the positions of the candidates? It is hard to tell, but ultimately we get the candidates that reflect the opinions of the electorate. The results may not be pretty, but that is after all how a democracy is supposed to work.
I have previously cited in this column Bill Bishop's 2008 book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans in Tearing Us Apart, which explored one reason why we have become so divided. In 1976, approximately 27 percent of Americans lived in what he calls "landslide counties," those that voted Republican or Democrat by a margin of 20 percent or more. In 2008, that was true of 48 percent of our counties and I expect that percentage will be even greater in 2012. We are increasingly living only among people with whom we agree on a wide range of political, social and cultural issues. One often-mentioned manifestation of this is that it is hard to find a Cracker Barrel restaurant in the same zip code as a Whole Foods store. Increasingly, as I have pointed out before, we agree that those with whom we never spend time are dead wrong.
Where we live is just one strong indicator of how we will vote. Age is another great separator. According to one recent poll, Romney leads by 18 points with seniors over 60 years old, while Obama has a 24-point lead with 18-29 year olds. Race and gender matter. Obama is up 9 points with women and Romney 9 among men -- an 18-point gender gap. Romney is up 20 points among white voters, Obama up over 60 with blacks and Hispanics.
Most of all, we are separated by ideology. A recent Pew poll shows Obama ahead by 20 points among self-described moderates, while Romney has a 52-point lead with conservatives.
The conventional wisdom these days blames the grid lock in Washington on the politicians there. But those politicians are to a large extent simply representing a very evenly split electorate.
Let's face it. No matter which presidential candidate wins, 40 percent of the country will be mad as hell. But it is vitally important that those people cool off, and there won't be much time for them to do it. Because starting next Wednesday, our elected representatives must deal with the "fiscal cliff" this country faces -- the confluence of the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, raising the debt ceiling, and the looming threat of massive spending cuts in defense and non-domestic discretionary spending that were passed by Congress in 2011.
It is hard to get economists to agree on anything, but there is close to unanimous agreement among them that failure to deal with the fiscal cliff will throw the economy into recession or worse.
That is why we all have a responsibility after we vote Tuesday. That is even if your candidate loses, to tell our member of Congress that you support putting the election behind us and finding a way to compromise to solve our very real problems. As divided as we are politically, we cannot allow those differences to prevent our government from functioning.
Ted Kaufman is a former U.S. Senator from Delaware. This appeared previously in the News Journal.