As we drove back into Springfield from the Rotary Club lunch, Republican candidate John Detrick recalled his election campaign. Six weeks out from polling day, it had all got a little close for comfort. Running for a third term as a local official in Ohio’s Clark County, where nice Midwesterners boast of being an average all-American community, Detrick feared his Democratic challenger was gaining on him.

For the first time, Detrick decided he had better buy a few spots on television. He gathered his five grandchildren around him and his two dogs, he told me, and made the ad: “’Hello, I’m John Detrick and I’d like your vote on November 2 so that I can continue to make Clark County a great place to live for my grandchildren’ - and they all waved - ‘and my grand dogs.’ And the dog barked.”

I didn’t get it all down the first time he rattled it off, so I asked him to repeat it. He did: same tone, same pace, same punch-line. “And the dog barked,” he said again. Then, proudly: “That was my own creation.”

It worked. Detrick was re-elected last November as a Clark County commissioner, one of three officials who control the local government purse-strings in a square patch of western Ohio that is home to 143,000 people. His was an unnoticed victory in the sweep of Republican triumphs that sealed the Grand Old Party’s control of Congress and returned George W. Bush to office.

And while conservative America savours the “mandate” of the right at Bush’s lavish inauguration next week, Detrick, a bubbly 62-year-old, can boast that in Clark County he trumped the president. Detrick won by a 15-point margin; Bush carried the county by just two points - as he did the country.

The fact that Detrick won, the margin by which he won, even the style in which he won - “People like children and people like pets and I have got a lot of positive response out of that” - none of them is as interesting as where he won. Like Bush, Detrick’s victory was sealed on the outskirts of town. Of the 100 precincts that make up Clark County, 62 are outside the Springfield city limits - and every one of those places opted for Detrick. By contrast, he says: “In the inner city, we Republicans really struggled.”

Springfield, the city at the heart of Clark County and a husk of the industrial hub it once was, is true-blue Democrat. The Republicans have painted the surrounding country red, dominating the former cornfields and old horse farms that have been supplanted by culs-de-sac of neo-classical family homes with Dodge caravans and basketball rings in two-car driveways.

From behind the wheel of his black GMC pick-up truck, Detrick looked out over the new subdivisions built on Ohio’s low-slung hills and offered me his folksy guiding political principles: “Three things upset people in the US,” he told me. “One: if you take their dog. Two: education. It is very tough being on a schoolboard. Three. NIMBY - not in my back yard. People just go ballistic.”

Driving by those detached homes on their single-acre lots, each with enough back yard to barbecue steak without smoking out the neighbours, Detrick had brought me back to the kind of neighbourhoods I had hurtled through so many times in the convoy of Bush buses on the campaign - the sort of place, seen from a window, where I had spawned my own homespun theory of modern American politics. It had been hatched in the final weeks of the campaign, on the road out from the apartment blocks and crammed housing of downtown Cleveland to a Bush rally in the spacious commuter suburbs.

It was this: the greater the distance between people’s houses, the more likely they are to vote Republican. This holds most starkly true in the vastness of rural America: Wyoming, Idaho and Alaska, too, where the space between front doors can stretch over the horizon, are all blood-red Republican. But in the towns, as the apartment blocks thin out and give way to street after street of detached family homes, the same principle applies: the bigger the back yard, the more likely there is to be a Bush-Cheney sign in the front. This is not simply to equate money with conservatism. There are rich gated communities, of course, but much more of the new suburbia is getting by, rather than well off. The size of the property, not just the price, seems to count in American politics.

Many forces shape the American vote. Bush won thanks to a mixture of 9/11, his Christian appeal, his straight-shooter likability, the tepid persona of his opponent and a campaign run like a military operation (only more successful). But let’s not forget, 57.4 million people from all walks of life and all corners of the US voted Democrat, and presidential candidate John Kerry notched up more votes than any other man before him, bar Bush.

The Republicans had a more emphatic victory in Congress, solid enough to make many think the party could well have a generational lock on Congress. US politics has, unarguably, tilted right. And it is the weight of the new suburbia - which includes both the established housing estates on the fringes of town categorised as “suburbs”, and the fields of new homes and shopping malls further out in the countryside, deemed “ex-urbs” - that has tipped the balance of power. Bush owes his next four years to the suburbs. A multitude of factors may sway voters’ minds, but there seems to be no more surefire determinant of the way they will vote than where they live.

Political analyst Charlie Cook, who collects factual minutiae of politics with the obsessive compulsion of a sports fan, has a similar formula for American voting habits. As you drive further out of town, the Democrats thin out; when the family homes are taller than the trees, you can be sure you’re in Republican territory. The Los Angeles Times concluded much the same: Bush, the newspaper found, won 97 of America’s 100 fastest-growing counties - the ex-urban areas.

Suburbs, of course, are not new, but two aspects of Republican suburbia are. First, they are much more Republican than they used to be: Bush’s lead in the ex-urbs was fourfold that of Republicans eight years ago. Ken Mehlman, the Republican party chairman, provided me with the numbers to show Bush’s improvement in the suburbs: the president increased his margin of victory over the Democratic candidate from 49-47 per cent in 2000 to 52-47 in 2004. Second, the suburbs, rather than the cities, have the votes. In 2000, an epic and largely unremarked threshold was crossed: that was the first year the majority of Americans lived in the suburbs. That echoed at the polls - the suburban vote, historically low compared with the urban, accounted for 45 per cent of all ballots in 2004, up from 43 per cent in 2000, and that suburban majority is still growing.

Back in Clark County, Jack Bianchi, the managing editor of the Springfield News Sun, told me that both the suburbanisation of Ohio and the Republicanisation of the suburbs are playing out on the local level: “In the city, Kerry won. All the precincts outside the city limits, Bush won - that means suburbia and rural areas.”

And from that understanding of where Republicans are, there flows a torrent of questions about who they are. What are “suburban values”? What are people fleeing as they head out of the cities and what are they rushing to embrace? Are the Republicans shaping or shaped by the politics of the suburbs?

I had come back to Clark County not because I thought I understood Republican America, but because I thought I didn’t. I had spent 2004 - and most of 2003 - covering the election. In the final three months of the campaign, the Bush press plane covered 76,900 miles, enough to circle the globe more than three times, and I reckon I was on board for the equivalent of at least one full orbit. I attended dozens of Bush stump speeches, so many that I can rattle off large chunks by heart - an entirely unappreciated party trick. And having pored over the polls and focus groups and, demeaning as this is to admit, hungered for insights from the president’s chief strategist Karl Rove on the coming Republican majority, I had to confess I was not surprised by Bush’s victory. But I was puzzled as to why. The Democrats seemed to have so much going for them - money, unity, passion, higher unemployment and an increasingly unpopular war - yet, still, they failed.

My confusion was, in part, a product of my own geography. If I were to throw a rock from the doorstep of my house, the chances of hitting a Republican would be slim. I live on Capitol Hill, about 800 yards from Congress and just over a mile away from the White House - both of which are firmly in Republican hands. But where I live the lawyers, political staffers, journalists, office workers and think-tank grunts dressed in Banana Republic khakis, driving Volkswagen Polos and walking their MacLaren strollers, are overwhelmingly liberal. As in Springfield, most Americans live in similarly homogenous communities, banded as much by mindset as by the cost of their mortgage. Washington is a Democrat town: DC voted 9 to 1 for John Kerry on November 2. (One of the things that has so embittered Democrats in New York, Washington and Los Angeles is that the “war president” had among the lowest levels of support from people in places perceived to be most vulnerable to terrorism, but the Ohio suburbs - well off the al-Qaeda radar - lapped up the strong-man stuff and delivered Bush a second term.)

As a European I’m probably less likely to appreciate the Republican allure, due to Europe’s lingering faith in the state’s ability to ameliorate suffering; the squeamishness about Christ in politics; the bafflement at US gun laws; the disgust at the electric chair; the distaste for the gay marriage debate. However, I have to confess that on the few occasions I have met Bush I have succumbed to his Mr Smith Goes to Washington schtick, the regular- fella-as-president routine. When we first had our picture taken together at a White House do, he grabbed me by the lapel, straightened my skewed tie like a father would a son, apologised that there was little he could do to make himself look better and said, smiling: “I thought you’d want to look your best, you’re having your picture taken with the president, you know.” Bush treats the press as a bitter, but necessary, daily chore, much like a child regards a dose of cough medicine. But the charm one-on-one is such that you can’t help feeling he was very well brought up.

But even if some Europeans, like me, have a personal feel for Bush, we don’t know many of the 60.7 million people who voted for him: we don’t know the red states, because we don’t go there. The America visited by cousins from the old world is generally urban, coastal and Democrat: just 2 per cent of overseas visitors stop in Ohio, most of them on business, according to the US Commerce Department; just over 40 per cent of overseas visitors are Europeans, but an estimated two-thirds of them do not stray from California, Florida, New York and New England.

Even people who are paid to understand the US fear they may be in the wrong place. A friend at the Italian embassy could not help but notice after the elections that Italy has 11 consulates across America, nine of them in blue states. (The other two are in Houston, a Republican city in a really red state, and Miami, a Democrat town in 50-50 Florida.) Japanese officials, meanwhile, are said to be worried that too many of their diplomats study in the north-east and they now want to explore more language-learning and cultural exchange opportunities in the schools of the deep South. Political writer Alexis de Tocqueville had it right when he talked of “this vast American society which everyone talks about and no one knows”.

Given my zipcode and the colour of my passport, it is no surprise that I have been surrounded by people whose response to Bush’s re-election has been a fatalistic incomprehension: “Who are these people who voted back into office a man who bust the budget, ushered a million people out of work and led America into a needless war?” And, quickly on the heels of the question, Bush’s exasperated critics have had a self-serving, ungracious answer: “stupid Christian rednecks”.

The Daily Mirror captured both the despair and confusion in Europe with its trademark provocative and judgmental headline: “How can 59,054,087 people be so dumb?” Within days, an e-mail in the same vein was circulating among the smarting Democrats on the East Coast and their sympathisers overseas - it showed voters in the Bush states had, on average, consistently lower IQs than those where Kerry had won. Michael Moore’s take on the Bush Republicans was there to see in the title of his best-selling polemic: Stupid White Men.

Author and journalist Thomas Frank’s bleak but delightful book about the conservative takeover in his home state - “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” - mercilessly skewers the pop social scientists trying to delineate red and blue America. His thesis, with my apologies for oversimplification, is that sensible Americans have lost their minds. He returns to Kansas and finds he is looking into the eyes of a “lunatic” all-American face, a place where globalising capitalism has shipped jobs out of state and the impoverished working Americans left behind nevertheless vote for the Republicans. They elected the party of corporate America because they have been swept up in the conservative backlash against the liberal 1960s and sold the vain hope that a Republican vote will somehow turn back the clock on everything from abortion to gay sex to the fleeting appearance of Janet Jackson’s left breast on Superbowl Sunday. “This derangement has put Republicans in charge of all three branches of government; it shifts the Democrats to the right and then impeaches Bill Clinton just for fun.”

By Frank’s standards, Springfield is as much la-la land as Kansas. The city is a ghost-town of the manufacturing Midwest. The International Harvester factory whistle, which once rang out over town sounding the start of the working day for thousands of employees, is now an exhibit in the municipal museum. The United Auto Workers retirees outnumber the active union members nearly four to one. The towering Crowell-Collier Publishing building, vacated in 1956, will next year mark its half centenary of steady dilapidation in the centre of the city. The Metallic Casket factory next door has long been empty as well. And the Vining Broom company was bought up, moved out of town and closed in the space of a decade. In all, Clark County has lost 7,200 jobs in the past five years, Detrick told me, and replaced them with between 4,000 and 5,000 lower paying ones. Its unemployment rate is 7.3 per cent and average income fell over the lifetime of Bush’s first term.

And still, Clark County went Republican. Ron Lyons, the self-described “token Democrat” among the 60 or so successful white men and women I met at the Rotary Club, said: “They are all nuts. They are confused. Very confused.”

On my 11th and final visit of the election year to Ohio I intended to get to grips with this “confusion” - and with mine. I chose Clark County for three reasons. First, I’d been door-knocking in the area before and, on one trip there, I liked Detrick from the moment I met him. Bush had come to the Springfield Fairgrounds in September and I bumped into the local candidate in the parking lot, standing in front of his pick-up truck festooned with “Vote Detrick” slogans and a blown-up black and white mugshot of the candidate himself. He was wearing a cap, emblazoned with his name. I introduced myself and asked him who he was. He pointed at his cap and gave a big grin: “I’m John Detrick,” he said. (Smiling, he recently told me, is one of the three things he advises when he speaks to classrooms of young people in Clark County. The others are to eradicate the word “can’t”, and “Just Do It” - illustrated with a Nike swoosh.)

Second, Clark County, once known for its manufacturing, now prides itself on being a microcosm for the rest of the country. Springfield was picked by Newsweek in its 50th anniversary edition in 1983 to be profiled as the most typical of American cities; the local museum published a glossy coffee-table history of Clark County titled, simply, Heartland; Springfield was last year officially recognised as an “All-American City”. From its smokers (25 per cent) to its divorce rate (51 per cent) to its children born of single mothers (38 per cent) to its politics (51-49, teetering towards a Republican majority), it is America writ small.

Third, Clark County seemed as good a place to examine how 60 million Americans could be so “dumb”, as it had been such a prize study in foreign foolishness: The Guardian newspaper’s Operation Ohio, the derided letter-writing campaign launched by the left-leaning British newspaper to encourage citizens of the battleground state to oust Bush, targeted Clark County.

When I visited Springfield just before Christmas, there was a dusting of snow, like icing sugar over the fields and warehouses around town. I drove to meet David Farrell, the county’s Democratic chairman, and hurried in through the icy winds to the Perkins Family Restaurant on East Main Street to discuss Kerry’s defeat. Part of the problem, Farrell suggested, is that the Democrats are getting themselves increasingly hemmed into the cities. The Kerry campaign strategy had chosen to target only 20 of the 100 precincts in Clark County, hoping to win by increasing their vote in the solidly blue urban areas. When Farrell had suggested trawling for votes more widely, he had been talked down.

His bigger worry, though, was the message. “We sold $40m worth of Pet Rocks in this country,” he said, referring with desperation to the fad for giving stones as pets, which falls somewhere in the consumer history of America between the mania for Cabbage Patch Kids and the zany collectors of dried manure sculptures. “You do not sell a Pet Rock on its merits…Democrats need to start to make it simple again. We didn’t toot our horn. Or we put it in terms that are too hard for people to understand.” Still, as his burger sat cooling on the greaseproof paper with just a single bite snatched out of it, Farrell mulled a bigger problem than PR: perhaps the Democrat product, a hand up for the helpless, an open door to the excluded and an olive branch to the world, just isn’t selling.

The next day, Dan Harkins, the Republican local party chairman, picked me up at 7.30am. It was barely light and snowing. He was wearing a Brezhnev-style fur hat, a thick green jacket and heavy yellow gloves. He looked like he was headed to the forest, hunting. Over the next few hours I was given a sombre tour of Springfield’s inner-city decline. We walked from the Marriott Courtyard hotel to Harkins’ law office, just four blocks away. He pointed to the Credit Life building, a company that moved into the squat black glass tower in the centre of town and was then bought by a big business and relocated to Chicago. He drove me past one boarded-up factory after another. We stopped at a huge site - three football fields end-to-end at least - which had been demolished. He suggested that, if I liked, I could pick up a discarded brick from the old factory as a memento, but it was cold so we pushed on.

We drove over the railway tracks. He told me that once there were five lines servicing Springfield, which more than a century ago was, after Dusseldorf, the world’s largest manufacturer of ball bearings. Today, less than 1 per cent of the rail traffic that clanks through town day and night actually stops in Springfield. We passed four, five, six-bedroom houses on sale for $150,000-odd. Prices are falling: a stately home, the Foos Manor, has just been reduced to $750,000. What remains within the city limits on the south side of town are poor areas of African-American housing, conspicuous by the narrow roads, peeling paint on the houses, discarded toys in overgrown gardens and rusting cars on streets that lack sidewalks. “This is an old library that we converted into a literacy centre where we are trying to teach adults to read,” Harkins said, then as an aside, “which is a pathetic situation for us.”

Politics brought Harkins to Clark County. He had been a 16- year-old page in the US Congress and contracted a disease: “Potomac fever - I would like to be a member of Congress,” he confessed. He was advised to move to a small town in America, get established and then make a run for Congress. He ended up in Springfield. Most days, he gets to his law firm office at 7am and then in the evening heads to Columbus, 45 minutes away, to go to his athletic club, work out, politic a little, have dinner and drive home. Converting Clark County to the conservative cause has been his calling and, Harkins says, Republicans have succeeded because they offer a path out of the economic malaise.

”The Democrats are relying on government to bail them out, but there is a recognition that the government lacks the resources,” he said. “The people know that we need to rely on small businesses and individuals. The employment opportunities are going to be at the grass roots level, which is what the Republican party cultivated at the election.”

Harkins drove me all around Springfield - past the reservoir where he used to swim until he splashed into a discarded diaper; past the airport with a runway big enough for a 747 and a terminal the size of a large townhouse; past the two hospitals, which thanks to a shrinking population will soon have to be merged into one. We talked about the Republican campaign, the 10 telephone lines used to make about 8,000 calls in the last few weeks that were decisive in getting a record Republican vote - as high as 88 per cent in some precincts. He noted the disaffection of traditional Republicans, fretful about the deficit. But we didn’t talk much about the war. “The way terrorism will be thwarted is by a community remaining open and interested in its neighbours,” he said. He didn’t want to use the word foreigners, he clarified, because he did not want to come across as xenophobic. Anyway, he continued, “people are not voting on the war. The war is not the big issue.” A vision of the future is, he said.

Over scrambled eggs, bacon and a stack of buttermilk pancakes as big as Frisbees, I asked him why he thought Europeans misunderstood, even underestimated, the Republicans. “You look at CNN, the Communist News Network,” he said. “The American media itself is pretty biased.”

Later that day, I met up with John Detrick. I had been told two things about Detrick. One was that he spoke 13 words to the dozen. True. The other was that he was known as the town crier. As soon as Detrick knew it, the town knew it.

Detrick was waiting for me in the carpark of Casey’s steakhouse. He peppered me with facts and figures about Clark County from the start: the county is 24 miles long, 12 miles wide. The I70 interstate highway carries 70,000 cars through the county each day. There are 225 churches in the county and, on any Sunday, about 15,000 people go to church.

We drove along Route 40, the old national trail which once carried the wagons out West. Detrick characterised himself politically as a moderate Republican, “because I do believe in the need to help the less fortunate”. He also explained the appeal of the party in terms of simple, prized values: “individual initiative and hard work”. On abortion he had adjusted his position: he used to be broadly pro-choice, now he thinks abortions are permissible only if the life of the mother or baby is in danger. His platform issues are farmland preservation, parks and recreation. We drove on to the western edge of Clark County, where Detrick spotted some graffiti on the side of the watertower. “Son of a biscuit,” he said, “Someone’s gone up there and painted snoopy things.” It will cost a fair amount to get that cleaned up, he moaned.

And this was the rambling pattern of my encounters in Clark County: local gossip, political theorising and polite small-talk spread out over days of illuminating but by no means methodically representative conversations. George McCann, the 82-year-old retired pharmacist who recently gave a speech to the local historical society entitled “Presidents Who Have Seen Me” dating back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s visit to Springfield, told me: “The Republican party used to be the party of fiscal responsibility. It no longer appears to be such. I have lived my life within my income and I would like the government to do the same.” Donna Dowling, the 72-year-old volunteer at the museum who started her working life in the R&M factory making fans and ended up running her own restaurant famous for its hefty servings of banana cream pie, embodied the ever-more-frequent changes foisted upon them. Gene Kelly, an unfeasibly appropriate name for the Clark County sheriff who is also something of a matinee idol in Springfield in his snug uniform and patent leather shoes, told me people are furious about the waste of money on war on terror projects, when basic crime-fighting is under-funded. Warren Copeland, a minister, a theology professor, the Springfield mayor and a Democrat, pointed out that Democrats are being undermined by a force bigger than the Republican party, namely the movement away from national organisations and the rise of the local. “Look at the Parent Teacher Association,” he said. “Less than a generation ago, every school had a PTA and it was part of a national network. Now people are saying: ‘Let’s run our school the way we want to. Independently.’” Nick Demana and his sister Teresa jointly own a steel mill but could not be more at odds politically. She is liberal on gay relationships and a woman’s right to choose an abortion; his take on homosexuality: “It ain’t right!” And two men warned me of the impending “End of Days”, one predicting that the Anti-Christ will burst forth from the European Union and the other saying “I am sure there are some fine Christians who are Democrats…even if they are harder to find.”

This is the cumbersome methodology of political reporting - vivid but haphazard. And, by way of a disclaimer, my observations about Republican America based on Clark County are much the same - authentic but unscientific.

Suburbia is the strategic high ground of modern American politics. The exit polls said that “moral values” were America’s chief priority. But I came away from Clark County thinking that suburban values - the morality of the mortgage payment, the independence of the single acre lot, the separation from black people left in the cities, the sheltering of the family from the pollution of other people, self-help rather than state safety net - dominate the thinking of the voting majority.

Race is a large and too little discussed part of this. Suburbia has its roots in segregation - America’s first landscaped suburbs of Levittown, a 1950s planned development, admitted only whites. No doubt, the white families heading out to suburbia and leaving African Americans behind in the city are doing so on purpose. Detrick even quantified the number of white families seeking self-imposed exile from urban black Americans: “Probably 25 per cent, but they won’t talk about it. They are closet bigots.” Republicans, he volunteered, likewise have no hold on the African American community: “In the South side,” he said, referring to the black end of town, “if you put Republican after your name, even Jesus Christ couldn’t get elected.” The Civil War, it seems, still plays out at the polls in Clark County.

Religion, too, gets a better hearing in suburbia. Dale Holzbauer, the minister of the First Christian Church in downtown Springfield, is moving with his overwhelmingly white evangelical Christian congregation of 1,000-plus people to a new site in the suburbs. “You have to follow the money,” he explained to me. “We can continue to grow there…We are going to where there is the densest population.”

A short man, middle-aged, casual in his jeans and thoroughly self-assured, Holzbauer left me in no doubt about both the force of his intellect and his conservatism. “The first issue for me is abortion,” he said. “We kill approximately 1,500 children a day.” Then it was national defence: “If you come to grips with Genesis Chapter 3, then things begin to fall into line…If real evil exists, then we have to defend ourselves,” he said, sitting in his study crammed with theological texts. “If someone comes into my home and says I will kill your wife and your kids, I say no you won’t. I am armed and I will kill.” And on to the role of the state: “We are moving towards socialism at a very rapid rate. In this country, we have all these entitlements, people are getting lazy and foolish and dependent.” Holzbauer insisted that he did not and would not preach Bush and Republicanism from the pulpit by name. He did, though, say that three members of his congregation had complained that his sermons left little doubt about whom he thought God was supporting in the election.

If suburbia has an organising principle, it is the family. Protection of the family - both the people and the idea - is paramount. The suburbs have been fatted on the ambitions and neuralgia of young parents: the desire to give children room to shoot hoops, ride bikes and trick-or-treat in safety; the virtuous circle of better families demanding better schools; room to walk the dog; and, above all, safe distance from the poisons of the city.

The fretting over gay marriage fits squarely into this suburban preoccupation with the family. Bush’s effort to get a prohibition on homosexual marriages written into the constitution is, at least to my London sensibilities, vindictive, illogical and doomed to fail. It provides a bandwagon for homophobes. Justifying the ban because marriage is a union between a man and a woman in the eyes of the Lord is all very well, but only if you are prepared to downgrade non-religious registry weddings to the second-class status of civil unions too.

Once again it was Detrick who helped me understand the argument: “We are so paranoid about the family. This is one area where the Christian right can ‘save’ the family, that is why they have acted the way they have.” The paranoia, he continued, is well-founded: Clark County issues 800 marriage licences a year and 900 divorces. There are 1,800 babies born each year in the county, about 800 of them - 38 per cent - to single parents. There are 800 paternity tests a year. And Clark County now has a department of 85 people collecting $35m in alimony payments - a wing of government and a small financial industry that did not exist 25 years ago. “People are not living up to their responsibilities.”

Conspicuous by its absence was discussion of the war in Iraq. It was something Republicans were generally not happy to talk about: several acknowledged they had opposed the invasion but still voted for Bush; even among those who claimed to see the justification for sending US troops, I did not find one Bush voter able to talk about Iraq without betraying a sense of profound misgiving. No doubt, the Ohioans I spoke to preferred Bush’s High Noon persona to the push-me-pull-you two-headed llama that Kerry sometimes resembled. But the security vote seemed to be personality not party - Republican credibility on security is not guaranteed to last beyond Bush and, as things deteriorate in Iraq, it may not even last that long.

Which brings me to my unexpected conclusion. As things stand, the further people live apart, the more likely they are to vote Republican. That’s true. Democrats live together and the proximity of rich and poor, black and white has underpinned the logic of their politics. The Democrat philosophy in bumper sticker form is: “We’re all in this together”. And this means that until the Democrats rethink or repackage their proudest achievements - the welfare state, healthcare, the Voting Rights Act and, by association, Roe v. Wade abortion legislation - suburbia, and with it effective power, could be lost for a generation. Republicans, whether in the suburbs, ex-urbs or smalltown America, think they have earned their individual independence - their bumper sticker would be “personal freedom”. In theory, this means the Republican party chimes with the suburban majority.

But, to my surprise, I left Clark County thinking the Republican hold of suburbia is extremely fragile. While I was there, I read The Right Nation, a book by Economist journalists Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait on the conservative ascendancy, and I happened upon a comment from Ronald Reagan: “Liberals fought poverty and poverty won.” It seemed to me that Republicans have promised to fight modernity and my bet is modernity will win. The case against gay marriage could yet put the Republican party on the losing side of history - this is America, after all, a country where the principle of equality has, time and again, won the bloody fight against reactionary conservatives. Bush’s proposal of a constitutional ban looks like something the Republican party will be apologising for in the years to come. The Republican position on abortion is either meretricious or politically suicidal: if Republicans have power and fail to repeal Roe, they disillusion the pro-life base; if they do overturn the abortion legislation, they would surrender the middle ground and their slender majority. The old Republican reputation for being the responsible housewife of the American family finances is being blown by Bush’s record of running up government debt. And Iraq could yet prove as chastening for the Republicans’ relationship with the armed forces as Vietnam was for the Democrats.

It all made me wonder whether Bush and Karl Rove, the strategist who has wanted to win not just the 2004 election but also an enduring majority for the Republican party, have won the battle but may yet lose the war. After all, suburbia is not going away, but it can change. The Gipper swung the so-called “Reagan Democrats”. George Bush Sr showed what a few tax increases could do to the Republican hold on suburbia. And Bill Clinton knew how to talk to the “soccer moms”. Suburbia today is Republican, but tenuously so.

For in Clark County, history seemed to be cooling quickly on the feverish election of 2004. At the Rotary Club lunch in the small town of New Carlisle there were rows of tables and plastic chairs, with the food spread across the trestles on the back wall: tacos, chilli and trimmings, salad and wide wedges of pie - cherry, blueberry, pumpkin - and three types of chocolate dessert. We picked up our food and sat down. Everyone said the Pledge of Allegiance. The local minister gave the shortest invocation: “Thank you God. This is a wonderful day. Amen.” Everyone laughed. There was more chuckling and jovial barracking as Ron Lyons, the “token Democrat”, ribbed the others for voting Republican. Then the collection: everyone reached deep into their wallets to volunteer funds for the local Christmas food drive. There was a 20-minute presentation on how fire-fighting equipment was used in the olden days. It was informative and very nice. A bunch of nice people being nice to each other and the community they live in. “This is truly happy Middle America,” Detrick said to me as we walked out of lunch and back to his pick-up.

James Harding is the FT’s Washington bureau chief.

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