Midway through Election Day on Tuesday, Democrats working for John Kerry started scoping out housing availability in Washington.

Exit polls showed their boy leading in the key battleground states of Ohio and Florida. Word circulated around Washington that Bush strategist Karl Rove had called Republican leaders of the House and Senate and told them there was only a 30 percent chance President Bush could win a second term. Pollster John Zogby predicted Kerry would win 311 electoral votes, 40 more than the 271 needed to win.

That was then. This morning Democrats wake up with the hangover that comes from forgetting that polls don’t win elections: Votes do.

When the votes were counted, George W. Bush won both the popular vote and the Electoral College, becoming the first President since his father to win a Presidential election with more than 50 percent of the vote.

Once the hangover clears, Democrats will scratch their heads and wonder what went wrong. Why couldn’t they beat a President saddled with an unpopular war, a stagnant economy and enough voter anxiety to keep an army of psychiatrists busy for the next decade?

Some, of course, will claim the election was stolen, just as some Republicans would claim if Kerry had won. They can piss and moan about Ohio and file all the challenges they want but it won’t change the outcome. The Republicans won. They lost.

But, in the end, the Democratic process won, even with the odds against them. They did it with sheer numbers – more than 120 million votes cast.

Bush won because he sapped votes from traditional Democratic strongholds: Hispanics, Catholics and women. Even Catholic John Kerry could not pull more than half of the Catholic vote.

And religious conservatives turned out in droves to vote for Bush. Exit pollsters found “moral values” played a much larger than expected role in voter decisions.

For the first time in too many elections, a majority of those qualified to vote actually did so. For the first time in too many years, a majority spoke. Depending on your point of view, Democracy either triumphed or subverted the process.

Even a cynic like myself has to step back and say “wow.” The system worked. Voters went to the polls and made their choice. This time, they elected a President with a plurality of both the popular and electoral vote.

Some will scream and moan and point fingers. They will blame the system, the money and the inherent corruption of politics.

But, in reality, the Democrats have no one to blame but themselves.

They had a shot against an incumbent weakened by missteps, a questionable war and even more questionable policies.

They responded by fielding a weak, flawed candidate who ran a lackluster, mistake-riddled campaign. Kerry never defined himself to voters and wrapped him campaign in the same Vietnam war he once protested against. For too many voters, he didn’t present enough reasons to change.

George W. Bush won the election but he didn’t beat John Kerry. Kerry beat himself.

Once the Democrats recognize that, they should accept the bitter fruit of defeat and move on. America’s problems cannot be solved unless everyone works together towards a common goal. Time to shake hands and find that common ground.