WASHINGTON - The Internet proved its value for fund raising, new private political organizations flexed their muscles with aggressive ad campaigns and Americans both contributed money and voted at phenomenal levels.
Politics in this country shifted in 2004 in important ways - far beyond the re-election of President Bush. And those shifts could influence campaigns and elections for years.
Republicans tightened their hold on the South. A Massachusetts court decision allowing gay marriage gave Republicans a powerful new ''wedge issue.'' And a nation that has been sharply divided showed few signs of coming together after the election.
''What we're getting instead of the normal bandwagon effect that usually happens after the election is a sense that no one's been persuaded,'' said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Mann cited post-election polls that found the public remains about evenly split on Bush's job approval, which is hovering at 50 percent or just below - with Republicans and Democrats sharply polarized in their views.
Changes in campaign finance laws led political groups to find a loophole that would allow the creation of new, private groups, known as ''527'' organizations. They are named for the section of federal tax law that allows the formation of such entities to raise unregulated money in large sums to provide election help, without coordinating directly with the candidates' campaigns.
Democrats got a faster start, using 527 groups to help Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry fend off an intense round of attacks by the Bush campaign last spring, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications specialist and director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.
But Republicans gained their footing by late summer. The ''Swift Boat Veterans for Truth'' dominated the campaign for more than a month after the Democratic National Convention with relentless attacks on Kerry's military service in Vietnam.
The 527 groups spent only a small share - more than $400 million - of the overall money spent in the presidential campaign, said Steve Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute, but he said the groups' participation in campaigns could grow.
''There is a great potential for these groups to expand their influence,'' Weissman said. That depends on whether anyone successfully moves to close that loophole in the coming months.
The Internet finally came of age as a political tool - especially for fund raising.
After Democrat Howard Dean blazed the trail for high-dollar Internet fund raising during the primaries, Kerry collected more than $80 million on the Internet. That was far more than Bush - the eventual winner of the presidential election - obtained that way.
Political scientist Charles Franklin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said the success of Internet fund raising and the prominence of the new 527s is likely to continue in future elections.
''Anything that seems to work in politics gets imitated until it's found not to work,'' he said.
A striking development in 2004 was the Republicans' success in strengthening their firm hold on the South.
The GOP won the Southern states in the presidential race and increased their Senate advantage in the states of the old Confederacy to 18-4, compared with a 14-8 edge before the election.
''Democrats have clearly got to find some kind of formula to win in the South,'' said presidential scholar Charles Jones, ''or they are in danger of not being a national party.''
Possibly the most important factor in politics was the very high interest that showed up both in individual political contributions and in the highest level of voter turnout in more than three decades. Turnout was estimated at more than 60 percent of those eligible to vote.
''The year 2004 is a turning point away from the apathy that has existed in American politics for several decades,'' said political scientist Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia.
''It's not just a one-time phenomenon. ... it's the division in the country about social and cultural issues that go to the core of people's beliefs.''
Will Lester covers polling and politics for The Associated Press.
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