The Real Battle

The first state—by—state polls of George Bush versus the all but certain Democratic nominee John Kerry are now appearing.  These polls matter much more than national polls. It is the Electoral College, as many Americans learned for the first time in 2000, that determines the winner of the Presidential election, not the national popular vote.  In 2000, for the 4th time in our history, the winner in the Electoral College finished second in the popular vote.


But frequently, the winner of both the popular vote and Electoral College does not win a majority of the popular vote. Bill Clinton never reached 50% of the popular vote in either of his victories.  Neither did John F. Kennedy in 1960, nor Richard Nixon in 1968, nor Ronald Reagan in 1980. Jimmy Carter barely hit 50% in 1976, as did Harry Truman in 1948. Frequently, the presence of a third party candidate denies the winner a popular vote majority, and sometimes the third party candidate may even determine the winner of a national election by allowing one candidate to win certain states by denying votes to the other.


The hand—wringing among Democrats about the possibility of having Ralph Nader on the ballot again in 2004, relates to their belief that Nader allowed Bush to beat Gore in Florida, thereby enabling Bush to win the 2000 election. Of course in the same breath, the Democratic partisans ague that Bush stole the election, with the connivance of the Supreme Court. Somebody has to be blamed in other words, for a narrow bitter defeat.


The 2004 election is shaping up to be very close again. If this turns out to be the case, it will break an over 100 year pattern of one close election, followed by a rout the next time around. The last time there were two nail—biters in succession, were 1888 and 1892, and only a few people in the Caucasus Mountains probably remember those years.

Each party has a core group of states that it is likely to win. This week, the GOP is going to begin using some of its $100 million plus cash hoard to air commercials for the President's re—election effort. But the ads will be aired in only 17 states. This follows the pattern of the 2000 election, when there were no national TV ads broadcast for either candidate. In Illinois, where I live, there were no ads for either Bush or Gore in the months before November, 2000, since the state was viewed as safe for Gore well before the election.  Residents of contested states, on the other hand, were 'treated' to an unending stream of messages by both parties, and affiliated groups.


With a little over 8 months until election day, the states that are not in play can be pretty safely identified.  The Republicans will almost certainly win Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Utah, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia—region>, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana.  Republicans are also likely to win Arizona, Louisiana, and Arkansas, particularly the last two with John Kerry as the Democratic nominee. Democrats may make an effort for Arizona, given the growth of the Hispanic population in the state, and if Bill Richardson is the Vice Presidential pick, he might make the state more competitive. But John McCain is also running for re—election in Arizona this year, and is likely to win easily. His strength is likely to help Bush in the state.


The Democrats on the other hand are all but certain to win Hawaii, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Illinois, Washington, and California.  This is many fewer safe states than Bush has in his pocket, but more large ones, with high Electoral College numbers. The Republicans maintain they have a chance in Washington State, but I think this is a head fake, as with the Democrats in Arizona.


The real competitive states are less than a third of the total. They include some that Bush won narrowly last time— Florida, Ohio, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Missouri. They include others that Gore won narrowly last time: Oregon, New Mexico, Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. 


The national polls out this week show a tie between Kerry and Bush, each with about 45% of the vote.  The first state polls cover eleven states, and in each of them, the same party that won last time is ahead this time, except in New Hampshire. This is the first sign of a problem for the Bush campaign. Bush narrowly won New Hampshire last time by just over 1%. Currently, neighbor state candidate Kerry leads Bush by 15% in  New Hampshire polls.  Of all the state primary contests held so far, New Hampshire was the one state with a surprisingly large turnout. At this point, the big New Hampshire lead for Kerry suggests this will be a very tough state for Bush to hold.


As a result of reapportionment, the states that Bush won last time now have 278 electoral votes, instead of 271. Had Bush lost New Hampshire in 2000, Gore would have been elected, even without Florida. This time, if all states vote for the same party as last time, except New Hampshire, Bush would get re—elected, even with the shift of the 4 electoral votes from New Hampshire to Kerry.


If either candidate wins the popular vote by 5% or more, it is likely he will sweep all of the contested states, and win about 2/3 of the electoral votes, as Clinton did twice.  If on the other hand, the popular vote margin is 2% or less, either candidate could win. The Republicans seem particularly vulnerable in Ohio, and Nevada (the first poll gives Bush a 1% lead), in addition to New Hampshire. In Ohio (20 electoral votes), there have been heavy manufacturing job losses.  No Republican has ever been elected President without carrying Ohio. In Nevada (5 electoral votes), there is unhappiness about the Bush administration's plan to store nuclear wastes in Yucca Mountain, and the state's Hispanic population is growing very rapidly. Florida, the focus of so much attention last time, may be a safer Republican state this time around. Jeb Bush won handily for re—election in 2002 by 13%, and the Southeast Florida condo community, heavily Jewish, is unlikely to be as enthusiastic for John Kerry as they were for a ticket with Joe Lieberman on it in 2000.  


The Democrats, on the other hand, will have to work to hold Oregon (7 electoral votes), New Mexico (5 electoral votes), Iowa (7 electoral votes), Wisconsin (10 electoral votes), and Minnesota (10 electoral votes). These were all very small margin Gore states last time, and Kerry's appeal in the upper Midwest is unproven.  Minnesota, once one of the safest Democratic states, is a state that has been trending Republican for the past few years, and is a real target for the Bush campaign.


There will be stories in the press by Republicans in California, or Democrats, perhaps in Virginia, that their state is in play. But if that is true in either case, then that state will not be needed to win for their party. If the Republicans are competitive in California, then Bush will win nationally in a landslide.  If Kerry wins Virginia, then Bush will go down hard.


At this very early stage, I think the election is likely to be close, and only a few key states will matter to both parties.


N.B.:  In my article :"The Real Battle", posted  Feb. 25th, I stated that Ronald Reagan did not win a majority of the popular vote in the 1980 election.  This is incorrect. The final vote totals, according to the World Alamanc for the 1980 race were as follows: (rounded to the nearest 1,000)

Reagan: 43,899,000  (50.8%)
Carter: 35,481,000 (41.0%)
Anderson: 5,719,000 (6.6%)
Other third party candidates: 1,366,000 (1.6%)