The State of the Race

The Baehr Essentials

If Monday, July 26th were Election Day, instead of the start of the Democratic National Convention, it would likely be a good day for the Democrats and the millions of Bush haters in the US and abroad.  As many learned in 2000, the Presidency is decided in the Electoral College, not on the basis of the national popular vote.  At the moment, Senator Kerry holds a very thin lead in the Electoral College.

As a result of Congressional redistricting following the 2000 census, President Bush gained a small advantage in his re—election fight. The states he won in 2000 now total 278 Electoral College votes, rather than the 271 they did in 2000.  This gives the President the ability to win re—election even if he lost one small state that he won in 2000, a tiny bit of breathing room. In the battle with Al Gore, Bush would have lost had he not won every state he captured. 

At the moment, Bush is behind in every state Gore won in 2000. Some of them are close, and have had conflicting poll results —— Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, in particular. Michigan is also closer in some recent polls than many expected, and there appears to be some Democratic Party turmoil in the state.  Ralph Nader is very popular with Arab Americans and Muslims, even if with no—one else, and he will almost certainly be on the Michigan ballot.  On the other hand, Kerry is running ahead in all the recent polls in Pennsylvania, a state the Bush team had hopes for turning around, as well as in  Oregon and New Mexico, which must be disappointing to the President's election team. 

The threat to Bush is that he is either even or behind in several states he won narrowly last time. Gore is ahead in New Hampshire, a state Bush won by only 7,000 votes in 2000 (less than a 2% margin of victory).  These 4 Electoral College votes might well slip away to Kerry. Kerry is very competitive in Ohio (20), Florida (27), and Nevada (5).  In each of these three states, there are polls showing Kerry ahead, and polls showing Bush ahead.  In Florida, Bush won by 537 votes last time, in Nevada by 22,000, and in Ohio by just under 4%.  A loss in Florida would probably kill Bush's chances unless he were to pick up Michigan (17) or Pennsylvania (21) and at least one other Midwest state. A loss in Ohio would require a win in Pennsylvania or Michigan. 

Democrats also think West Virginia (5 Electoral College votes), a traditionally Democratic state that Bush won by 6% (40,000 votes) in 2000, is theirs for the picking. In the race against Gore, Bush won West Virginia by paying attention to it, which Gore did not. Bush's message of cultural conservatism seemed to work there as well. Democrats also point to a few polls suggesting Virginia (13) is in play. If Kerry is competitive in Virginia in November, he won't need to win it to get elected; he will have won more than enough elsewhere. 

On Saturday, Ron Fournier wrote a story for the Associated Press, suggesting Bush was ahead in the Electoral College . His conclusion, on which states are leaning in which direction, contained some surprises.  He noted that Missouri (11) is leaning towards Bush, and that the Kerry team, in frustration, had reduced their advertising in the state, which Bush won by only 3% in 2000.  At least one recent poll has Kerry ahead in the state. I suspect Missouri has not yet been written off by the Democrats. Fournier also states that Kerry ads were being pulled in Louisiana (9) and Arkansas (6), two Southern states where Kerry was thought to have a chance with John Edwards on the ticket, but in which Bush is holding onto a lead.  Several recent polls put Kerry slightly ahead in Arkansas, so this also seems to be a premature obituary for his chances in the state.  While there is no evidence that Edwards has put any Southern state in play that wasn't being contested already, he may be helping Kerry in Florida.

Florida is really at least three states in one —— a more Southern and Republican state in Northern Florida, a more Midwestern—like tossup state from Daytona through the I—4 corridor to Tampa and south to Naples, and a heavily ethnic and Democratic voting state (like the Northeastern states) in Southeast Florida (Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties). Edwards has been spending most of his time so far in the Midwest, where his message seemed to resonate more with voters during the primaries than it did in the South, where he won only his birth state of South Carolina.  If Edwards spends a lot of time before November in Florida, expect to see him in the Tampa area, and Orlando and Central Florida, rather than in Pensacola.

With Kerry ahead in all the Gore states from 2000, and ahead or even in a few Bush states from 2000, it is hard not to conclude that Kerry has the upper hand at the moment, small though his advantage might be. The concern about this is evident in the columns by George Will and Ramesh Ponnuru.

The silver lining for Bush is that we are in a period where the Democratic ticket is getting a lot more attention than the Republican ticket, almost all of it favorable, and as would be expected, this is clearly helping Kerry.  On the other hand, the Olympics, the Republican convention, an improving economy, and less news from Iraq, might help Bush down the road.  Angry demonstrations by Bush haters at the Republican convention in New York might also help Bush, as similar demonstrations at the Democratic Convention in 1968 helped Nixon.  But Bush will be hurt when the American death toll in Iraq hits 1,000, which, at the present rate, could occur in September or October. The national media will use this magic number to create a major news story, and their retrospective look at the war, why it was fought, and what it has accomplished, will be damaging to the President, since we can guess how that retrospective evaluation will be spun.

The Edwards selection gave a brief and modest boost to the Kerry ratings in national polls, though much of that has dissipated. However it appears that Edwards has helped Kerry in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and some of the Midwest states that Gore won narrowly in 2000, and where most observers believe the election will be decided this year.  If Edwards is unable to make any Southern state winnable for Kerry, this suggests the election will be decided in just a few Midwestern states, plus West Virginia, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Larry Sabato, the respected University of Virginia political scientist, says that Kerry would win today 274—264, picking up West Virginia, Nevada and New Hampshire from Bush.  I think West Virginia is a real tossup, and Bush may still have an edge there. Losing the other two would produce a 269—269 tie in the Electoral College if all other states held to the 2000 voting pattern. A tie would mean a repeat of sorts of the 2000 post election nightmare, and probably in the end, another Bush victory, this time decided by the House of Representatives, where the Republicans control many more state delegations than the Democrats (29 to 16 with 5 split states). 

But Bush is also vulnerable in Ohio, and to a lesser extent in Florida, as well.  This is the real risk to his re—election. The economy is stronger in Florida than in Ohio, and Bush's strength with pro—Israel Jewish voters will help him more in Florida than Ohio.  Neither state can be considered safe for the President today.

The Democratic Convention will likely give Kerry another small boost —— perhaps to a 4—to—6 point lead nationally, similar to the lead he reached in the afterglow of the Edwards selection. The fact that Kerry is ahead by a point or two in most national polls today is the reason he is showing strength in some of the close battleground states.  A victory by 3 or 4% in the national popular vote would mean that one candidate would probably win the election with an Electoral College number in the 300s, instead of in the 270s, as occurred in 2000.

Had the 2000 election been held a week or ten days earlier, before the Bush DUI story was leaked by a Democratic Party official in Maine, Bush would have likely won comfortably by 3 or 4 %, and won Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, and Oregon, perhaps Pennsylvania, and Florida much more decisively. The divided state of the electorate means that a 4% win by either side would create a relative landslide today. Given the sharp partisan split in the electorate, and the intense anger on the left, a second very narrow Bush victory might prove to be a powerful economic stimulus for the mental health industry.  It would also enable the Hillary 2008 and the Edwards 2008 campaigns to begin in earnest.

On a related field and subject, the Red Sox and Yankees had another of their slugfests on Saturday, with the teams providing both wrestling and baseball entertainment for the fans.  The Red Sox won the game 11—10, but still trail the Yankees by 8 and a half games. Come playoff time, the Yankees will be there, and the Red Sox can only hope for a wildcard berth, which is certainly not assured at this point. If the teams meet again in October, there is an 86 year history suggesting which team to bet on. If you are a Bush supporter and a baseball fan, the fact that the Democrats chose Boston for their convention to please their anger—meister in chief, Ted Kennedy, while the GOP chose New York for their convention, may be a positive sign.  Perhaps this November will look like all the Octobers past, and the result leave New Englanders crying in their chowder  about coming up a bit short with the home team and the home town candidate.