The morning after: Half of us will be disappointed

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PITTSBURGH (AP) -- 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.

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."

Passions are high, too, in the second-largest city in divided Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh is full of neighborhoods where geography doesn't necessarily dictate political stripe. It's not uncommon to see intersections like the one in the city's Morningside neighborhood, where McCain and Obama signs face off across the street from each other in a silent political High Noon. That means that come Nov. 5, someone's going to wake up agitated.

"I can't imagine the level of despair we would feel," said Kyra Straussman, 45, of Pittsburgh, an Obama supporter who works in real estate. "Let me put myself there for one minute: McCain is president. Catastrophic problem for me in every way you could think about it - culturally, spiritually, financially."

John Hinshaw, a historian at Lebanon Valley College in central Pennsylvania, sees a couple things that could dictate the aftermath of Election Day - one aggravating and one mitigating. He says that many people profess after the fact to have voted for the winner even if they didn't, thus leavening the strong reaction.

But if voters perceive unfairness, which can happen in both thin margins and landslides, that can be a serious problem. "People can say, `It's not my president. It's your president,'" he says. "And that's the kind of stuff that can really weaken nation-states."

Lebanon Valley is one of three institutions doing a study this year on the emotional intensity of the election, comparing people's expectations to their reactions afterward. A similar study done for the 2000 election showed that people who expected to be inconsolable if Al Gore lost actually felt OK when it happened.

"We have tremendous powers to make it seem to ourselves like it turned out the way we thought it was going to," said psychologist Michael Kitchens, who is co-leading this year's study.

If, in the end, Americans are having trouble reconciling their feelings on the morning after, we might consider Return Day, a tradition in Biden's home state of Delaware.

On Thursday, candidates for office - winners and losers - will gather and ride down the streets of Georgetown, Del., together before thousands of people to show that divisiveness need not endure after the election. They even bury a symbolic hatchet.

"All the ill feelings and harsh remarks, all of that is buried in there, and everybody agrees to put aside their partisanship and work together," says Debbie Jones, one of the organizers. "It's something everybody could use."

Reality or wishful thinking, that's part of America's self-image as a land of strong competitors who, in the end, draw together to move forward.

"I respect the process at the end of the day. That's the best part about it," said Kevin Bierschenk, 31, a Republican and a telecommunications project manager in Herndon, Va. "Good losers," he said, "are just as good as a good winner."