The national media polls? Suddenly irrelevant. The conventions, the debates, the homestretch fund-raisers? Mere memories.
And even as the talking heads kept on talking, only one voice mattered Tuesday: the voice of everyone.
Across the land, as Americans picked new representatives from the chief executive all the way down to unpaid municipal officials, many of those who chose to vote said the closeness of the presidential race made Election Day crackle with possibility.
“This is the first election for me when I feel like my vote could make a difference,” said Janet Myers, 30, a Chicago social worker.
America has always been filled with people who straddle the line between idealism and cynicism, and Election Day brings this out in stark relief.
Dozens of interviews with would-be voters and their won’t-be-voting counterparts Tuesday reinforced this notion.
They reflect the delightfully logical ambivalence of Elijah Conley, 54, a factory worker in Milwaukee.
“I still vote in every election because I think one evil is better than another,” Conley said.
Reports from around the country suggested voter turnout was, if not genuinely heavy, at least more than many people expected.
At a high-rise condo in downtown Los Angeles, voters lined up before the polls opened. Volunteer Sadie Alston said about a quarter of the 800 people registered turned out before 10 a.m.
“I’ve never seen this many people so early,” she said.
Henry Shenk, 44, a salesman voting at a church in the Shadyside section of Pittsburgh, saw his vote as a milestone – that the annoying campaign season was ending. “Thank God it’s over,” he said. “I never want to see one of those stupid commercials again.”
Many Americans who did choose to vote were hardly reticent about their decisions and their attitudes.
Legions expressed weariness at President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and, as one put it, “all the lies.”
Others were just as certain George W. Bush shouldn’t be elected because he’s unqualified, uncommitted, unfit.
“It was really, really hard because I didn’t really like either of them,” said Angela Bohnenkamp, 23, of Des Moines, Iowa. She ultimately chose Gore.
Some went for Bush:
l “Bush would make the better leader,” said Chrissy Thomson, a 19-year-old student at Boise State University in Idaho, adding cryptically: “There are things about Gore.”
l “George Bush came to this neighborhood twice; Al Gore hasn’t been here once,” said Al Sandoval, 31, a carpenter in a section of Detroit called Mexican Town. He added: “If you speak some of the language ... it helps.”
And others for Gore:
l “If character is the issue, Gore still comes out ahead,” said Noelle Yuen, 41, a psychiatrist from Waipahu, Hawaii. “Clinton has nothing to do with it.”
l “Everything seems to be in place. Why change things?” said Ed Valenti, 52, the president of a Warwick, R.I., advertising agency who voted for Gore. “He’s part of the regime that got everybody back firing on all cylinders.”
And Green Party candidate Ralph Nader? He wasn’t as forgotten at the polls as he was in the debates that excluded him. “He’s the only one that stands for true democracy,” said James Decker, 31, voting inside the Beltway in Washington.
What emerged from more than 200 Associated Press interviews with voters leaving the polls Tuesday is this: Despite years of low turnout, despite grousing and disenchantment, many Americans still care passionately about their land and its fate — and will take time from their day to show it.
“I’ve always voted. I don’t know any other way,” said lifelong Democrat Delores Burbank, 71, who walked around her Albany, N.Y., neighborhood in stars-and-stripes pants, a flag hat and a shirt to match.
Beyond the issues, personal reasons for ballot choices occasionally ruled the day. Many voted based on taxes, others on abortion or the environment. And for Dean Shoemaker, a mechanic from Gainesboro, Tenn., voting for Gore was even more personal than any of that.
“I done had one Bush in there who sent me to Saudi Arabia,” he said, “so I’m not voting for another Bush.”