Of all the conversations I’ve had since Election Day, the saddest have been with Democratic get-out-the-vote operatives in Ohio and Florida. The fate of the Kerry candidacy — indeed, of the nation — was in their hands, and they did damn near everything right. And still came up short.

“We hit our targets” — that’s the refrain I’ve heard again and again. And they did: The Democratic vote totals coming out of Orlando and Columbus should have sufficed to put John Kerry in the White House. But what I’ve also heard is their bewilderment, not so much that they underestimated the Republicans’ get-out-the-vote campaign as that they missed it almost entirely.

“Right now, I’m throwing up my hands in confusion,” says one senior operative who essentially ran the unofficial Democratic get-out-the-vote program among persuadable voters in the eastern half of Florida’s I-4 corridor. “Everywhere we worked, our vote went up from 2000, by between 8,000 and 16,000 voters [per county],” he says. But Bush’s totals grew by even greater margins across the corridor. And the Democrats didn’t see it.

“We’ve been going to swing precincts for the entirety of the campaign,” says the operative. “We’ve been out there every day since May 24. And we bumped into Republican precinct walkers twice. Just twice. We never saw a mass Republican mobilization. We never saw more than a few cars at Republican headquarters. They claim to have mobilized 80,000 volunteers statewide, but we never saw it here.”

The operative’s bewilderment is echoed across the country. In the final days of the election, one senior Democratic operative told me almost the same thing about Nevada: That the signs of mass volunteer activity in the Las Vegas Republican headquarters were nowhere to be seen; that the Democrats had them badly beat on the ground. I heard the same analysis 10 days before the election in the suburbs of Cleveland.

From this, there are three possible conclusions that can be drawn. The first is that the Republicans did the lion’s share of their organizing in exurban communities that aren’t really on the Democrats’ map. The problem with this is that there were few communities in battleground states that weren’t on the Democrats’ map at all.

The second is that the Republicans did most of their organizing through churches, NRA chapters and the like, and that it was therefore almost impossible to detect by any conventional means. “Take a look at Holmes County,” says one veteran Ohio Democratic operative. “It’s entirely rural — almost nothing but farms. You cannot walk it. But Bush got 76 percent support there, and the only possible way to have organized that vote is through the churches.”

The third explanation is that the numbers must have been cooked here and there by electronic voting machines that leave no paper trail — an explanation that some Democratic technicians are still looking into. Still, the breadth, if not the depth, of Bush’s victory suggests that Bush had a lot more going for him on Election Day than vote cooking, if cooking there was.

For one, there was an intensity gap that worked in Bush’s favor — a fact that only becomes clear if you look at voter turnout in non-battleground states. Turnout surged in such Southern Bible Belt states as Alabama and Tennessee, which had no hotly contested races on their ballots. In secular, blue California and New York, meanwhile, voter turnout as a percentage of the population actually declined.

These results had no bearing on the electoral vote outcome — Tennessee and Alabama were always going to go for Bush, and California and New York for Kerry — but they’re one reason why Bush racked up a 3.5 million margin over Kerry in the popular vote count. They’re one reason why the percentage of moderates in the electorate, 50 percent four years ago, shrunk to 45 percent last week, while the percentage of conservatives rose from 29 percent to 34 percent.

And they’re one reason why the shift in the Latino vote towards Bush was probably overstated in the exit polling. In the Edison/Mitofsky exit polling that virtually every media outlet used, Bush increased his support among Latinos from 35 percent in 2000 to 42 percent last week. In the only other national exit poll, conducted by the L.A. Times, his support among Latinos similarly increased from 38 percent to 45 percent.

In California, the mother lode of Latino votes, however, Bush won just 31 percent of Latino backing compared to Kerry’s 68 percent. The spread in New York state was even greater; Kerry carried 75 percent of the Latino vote. But the vote was light in these states and far heavier in Florida, where Bush racked up 56 percent Latino support (which was lower than his past margins, since the state’s heavily Republican Cuban population has been joined by Puerto Ricans and migrants from Mexico, Central and South America). To be sure, Bush increased his vote among Latinos even in California, but the national figures wouldn’t have shifted so dramatically if the big blue states had had big turnouts.

But it wasn’t the Latino vote that cost Kerry the election; it was the white vote. In the large-scale post-election survey conducted for the Democracy Corps and the Institute for America’s Future by ace Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, Bush carried the white working class vote by 24 percent — up from 19 percent in the Democracy Corps survey four years ago. The key swing constituency in this election was white working-class women. Bush improved his margin among white men by just one point over his 2000 figure, according to the exit polling. Among white women, though, the story — and it’s the story of the election — was more dramatic. Bush carried white women by a 49 percent to 48 percent margin over Al Gore; he carried them by a 55 percent to 44 percent margin over John Kerry.

Pollster Greenberg argues that many white working-class voters were in play almost right up to Election Day, and that they were open to the kind of on-your-side economic populist appeal that Democrats often make. Kerry did make those appeals, but he stepped on his own lines by also stressing the Iraq debacle. His ability to make that pitch was also circumscribed by his temperament (cool) and geography (New England). In the end, to too many voters, Kerry looked more like a cultural elitist than an economic populist. (Or, perhaps more precisely, Kerry looked more like a cultural plutocrat than the foe of economic plutocrats, which, Teresa’s fortune notwithstanding, he certainly is.)

So what do the Democrats do now? They must begin by acknowledging that the Republicans have masterfully played the politics of cultural polarization for almost 40 years now, going all the way back to the Nixon administration. They must realize that the only times the Republicans haven’t succeeded have been when the Democrats nominated Southern governors: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. If Democrats want to wrest this nation from radical right control, they need to look to such figures as Virginia Governor Mark Warner and North Carolina Governor Mike Easley as plausible presidential contenders. Without some entry into the red states, without a candidate who can withstand the Republicans’ cultural demonization, the Democrats will not likely regain power no matter how dazzling their ground game may be.

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