The state of the race

The Baehr Essentials

The Kerry and Bush campaigns have spent about $400 million between them so far.  Add the two national committees, plus the other Democratic candidates and the spending by independent groups, and with 10 weeks to go before Election Day, total spending on the Presidential race is fast approaching three quarters of a billion dollars.  And the net result: one state has flipped. New Hampshire, with 4 Electoral College votes, appears to be leaning to Kerry though it voted last time for Bush. The other 49 states might well vote for the same party as last time. If that is in fact the case, Bush would win 274—264, a slightly larger margin than last time, despite winning one fewer state, as a result of the redistricting that occurred after the 2000 census.   As a result of that redistricting the Bush (red) states now total 278 Electoral College votes, the Gore (blue) states, 260.

In the most recent six national polls, three show a tie between Kerry and Bush. In one poll Bush is ahead by 2%. Kerry leads by 1% in one poll, and by 4% in another (the outlier in the group, by John Zogby).  Average the six polls, and Kerry is ahead by 0.5%. In 2000, Gore beat Bush in the popular vote by 0.5%.  So again, with all that has happened in four years, for all the effort and money spent so far, very little has changed.

Analysts of this year's race occasionally argue that the popular vote is irrelevant, and only the battleground state poll results matters.  This is nonsense.  Events which move the national poll results also move the battleground poll numbers.  The campaigns only advertise in 20 or fewer states, but the media amplifies what is happening in the campaign all over the country. The Swift Boat Veterans ads have run in three states ——  Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. But they appear to have deflated Kerry's national poll numbers by 2%, and lifted Bush's by about the same amount.

When a 4—5% lead for Kerry becomes a tie or a 1% lead nationally, as has occurred in the last week or two, the battleground state polls move too.  John Zogby still shows Kerry ahead of Bush in almost all the battleground states  , but many of his leads are now less than a single percent (Florida, Missouri), or only slightly more than that (Arkansas, Nevada, Tennessee, Wisconsin).  And other polls taken just after the Zogby survey show Bush ahead in Florida, Missouri, Nevada, Tennessee and Arkansas.  The Kerry campaign has not spent a dollar advertising in Tennessee, which does not suggest much confidence that they are competitive in the state.  How likely is it that Kerry, from Massachusetts, will do better than Gore, a Tennessean, in Tennessee and Arkansas?  Gore lost both states.

More Swift Boat controversy might mean better Bush state polling numbers in the days ahead. In the three states where the Swift boat ads have run, Bush has widened his lead according to Zogby in Ohio and West Virginia, and is hanging close in Wisconsin (one survey shows the race now tied there).

There are events or news stories which might shift the calculus of the race a few points nationally either way. Bush will likely get a small boost from his convention next week. But Bush will probably take a hit in the polls when the US casualty count in Iraq hits 1,000 dead sometime in September, and the mainstream liberal press uses this as an opportunity to hammer the decision to go to war and the post—war occupation.

The debates could have an outsize impact on how voters relate to Kerry. Debates are less staged than a convention, and are more telling of a man's character.  The debates in 2000 were supposed to represent a test of Bush's capabilities. But instead, Gore's obnoxious and confused behavior became the story. A few percent of the electorate tuned Gore out, and Bush took the lead for the first time since his convention in July 2000. He held it until a Democratic operative in Maine released the DUI story from 30 years ago, which took away Bush's momentum and turned the race into a tie.

Assuming the race stays close, the election will be decided in just a very few states.  So far, Bush has not maintained a lead in any state that Gore won in 2000. But he is very close in Wisconsin (10), and Iowa (7), and both are winnable. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin's slanderous comments last week about Vice President Cheney being a 'coward' have not gone down well in a state known for having good manners.  Gore won Iowa by only 4,000 votes last time. Harkin might have set Kerry back by more than that. 

Bush only lost Wisconsin by 0.2% last time. If Bush wins nationally by 2% or more, he could also win Minnesota (10), a state he lost by 2% in 2000. There are contradictory poll results in New Mexico (5), a state Gore won by fewer than 400 votes in 2000. One poll (Rasmussen) shows a tie, but most others have Kerry ahead by 5% or more. This has to be disappointing for Bush, as is Oregon (7), where Bush lost very narrowly last time, but has consistently trailed by 5% or more in state polls. 

The biggest disappointment for the Bush team so far is Pennsylvania (21).  Bush has visited the state 32 times, more than any other state, trying to reverse his 4% loss in 2000. But in virtually every poll, Kerry leads by 4 or 5%, and in a few polls by more than that. Rasmussen shows the race closer however.  Kerry has also maintained a consistent 4—5% lead in Michigan (17), which Gore won by 5%. An upset special for Bush could be Maine (4). Maine allocates two of its Electoral College votes to the winner in each congressional district. Bush is very competitive in the 2nd District, and is only a few points behind statewide. Gore won the state by 5% in 2000.

With few pickup opportunities, Bush will have to devote most of his campaigning to holding his states from 2000. The two states that will likely decide the outcome are Ohio (20) and Florida (27). Bush has been about even to slightly ahead most of the year in both states, though the race has been very close. If Florida is a 1% race this time, it could well be decided by how many felons are allowed to vote, and how many Floridians vote both in Florida and a second state. News came this week of 46,000 voters registered in both Florida and New York City. Note that is not New York State, or all other states, but just New York City and Florida dual registrations. The vast majority of these dual registered voters are registered Democratic. Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert have been crying foul before the ball is thrown in Florida, about tampering with voting machines and suppressing black turnout, but elements of the fix seem to be already in play on the Democratic side.

For the Republicans, the hope in Florida is that Ralph Reed, the engineer of their Georgia election sweep in 2002, can accomplish something even more important in Florida this year.  GOP strategists seem slightly more comfortable about Florida than Ohio. Ohio has had more job losses than most other states, and the Democrats and their support groups are mounting a furious voter registration drive and ground game aimed at driving turnout. Ohio has strong Republican roots, but an unpopular Republican governor.  

In several other states Bush has been slightly behind to slightly ahead for most of the year. These states include Missouri (11), West Virginia (5),  Nevada (5), and Arkansas (6). In several other states, Bush has held onto a small to modest lead:  Colorado (9), Arizona (10), Virginia (13), Tennessee (11), and North Carolina (15). In the past two weeks Bush's hold on the South seems to have solidified.  By no means are all these states now safely in Bush's corner. West Virginia and Nevada are very competitive. I anticipate that Bush's lead in the Southern states will grow in the weeks ahead. Missouri is in many ways a southern state, and I think Bush is the favorite here. Rasmussen has shown Bush ahead in Missouri by from 4 to 6 % most of the year, more than in other surveys.

If the race is won by either candidate by 2% or less, then Bush is more vulnerable than Kerry, since he has more close states in play from 2000 that he won, than the number of close states Gore won that Kerry has to defend.  Assume New Hampshire goes over to Kerry (he has had a 5% or greater lead there most of the year). If Gore also picks up Ohio, then Bush has to win Iowa and Wisconsin to win re—election, assuming he holds all the other close states Gore won in 2000. This will be difficult.  If Bush holds Ohio and Florida, then he can probably only lose by defeats in New Hampshire, West Virginia and Nevada, assuming he holds other close Southern or border states (e.g. Arkansas, Missouri), Colorado and Arizona, all of which lean towards Bush at the moment.  That will be difficult for Kerry, particularly I think in West Virginia.

If the Electoral College winds up in a 269—269 tie (say, Kerry picks up Nevada and New Hampshire), Bush almost certainly wins when the race is then decided in the House of Representatives (the GOP controls more than half of the state delegations). If either candidate breaks out to a 4% or bigger national popular vote margin, they will likely win almost all the contested states, and wind up with a 100 vote or greater Electoral College margin.

Colorado has thrown a monkey wrench into all this with a ballot referendum which, if passed, would apply to the current election, and allocate Colorado's 9 Electoral College votes according to the popular vote percentage in the state. Most referendums in most states lose, and this one should too. It's applicability to the current cycle may also make it unconstitutional under state or federal law.

In any case, the tea leaves this week show a decent Bush pickup before his convention, which should further add to his momentum. But he was behind before this for most of the last two months, and could slip again.  I believe the debates will tell the story this year.  There will be a lot of very nervous partisans watching on both sides.