The endgame

The Baehr Essentials

Sixteen days to go, and the presidential race is taking on an unpredictable character.  After sagging in the national polls after the first debate and losing much of his 5 to 6 point lead, President Bush seems to be experiencing a modest rebound the past week in the national surveys. The Kerry team's continued gratuitous references to Mary Cheney's sexuality, seem to have struck a majority of Americans the wrong way. Elizabeth Edwards' stupid comment that the Cheneys were likely ashamed of their daughter was the cruelest remark of all, though it received less attention than Kerry's remarks in the debate.

But while Bush now has a 3 or 4 point lead nationally (larger than this in a few polls, smaller  in others), the key state races are very tight.  The Bush national lead may be coming in large part from pulling away in safe red states. Rasmussen had Bush up 7 a week ago in Florida (27), but now only up 2. In Ohio (20), a 5 point Bush lead in Rasmussen is now down to 1.  A Washington Post poll has Florida tied.  The big Democratic prizes in play —— Pennsylvania (21), and Michigan (17), seem to be sticking in the Kerry column at the moment by 2  points each according to Rasmussen.

In smaller blue states, Wisconsin (10) seems very close after Bush led by a few points most of the Fall.  Iowa (7) is very close, and so is New Mexico (5). Kerry clings to a lead in Oregon (7), Minnesota (10) and Maine (4), though one poll has Bush up 5 in Oregon (but I don't buy it).  Disturbingly for the President, Kerry seems to have regained the lead in New Hampshire (4).  Bush seems to be maintaining the edge in other red states once thought competitive —— West Virginia (5), Nevada (5), Arizona (10), Colorado (9), Missouri (11), and Arkansas (6).

It is of course possible that if Bush breaks out to a 5 or 6 point national lead that the state polls will look more favorable to the President later in the week.  Newsweek has Bush up 6 nationally among likely voters, and a just—released Gallup Poll has Bush up 8 . But I don't sense a race with Bush up 6 or 8 points nationally, and the behavior of the two parties suggests it is much closer.  The reason is that the massive voter registration drive the Democrats have pulled off, with the 527 group ACT as the anchor, has added more than 2 million voters nationally to the rolls, most of them in battleground states. Ohio has an additional 500,000 registered voters, in a state Bush won by 170,000 last time.  The polls may not be picking up much of this registration gain.  It is also possible that Bush is doing better in Florida than the polls show. Most of the hurricanes hit Republican areas of the state. Many people do not have use of their land line phones, and can't be polled. 

A recent article by Jim Geraghty in the National Review Online's Kerry Spot argued that the polls are all underestimating the Republican turnout advantage. They have locked  into place in their models static likely voter screens and Republican/Democrat sample size models for the parties based on the 2000 election, when the Democrats won the turnout battle. This may be so to some extent, and partially explains why Zogby and other pollsters underestimated the GOP Congressional wins in 2002, when the Republicans seem to have greatly enhanced their 72 hour get out the vote effort.  But the surge of new registrations, and whether these new potential voters will fit into normal turnout models, is also a mystery.  

If either candidate wins by only 1 or 2 points nationally, and in any battleground state by 2% or less, the legal challenges will begin immediately. This is particularly the case if Bush wins narrowly again. The effort would then have two purposes —— to try to overturn some state results, as was attempted in Florida in 2000, but also to delegitimize the incoming Administration for having stolen another election.  This way the base can be mobilized early for the next time around, and never allowed to rest. Let the fundraising begin for 2006 and 2008.

If the race were held today, Kerry would need to win either Florida or Ohio to win, assuming he holds onto his lead in all the blue states except Wisconsin.  If Bush loses New Hampshire but wins Wisconsin and Iowa, then he would still win 271—267 even if he lost Ohio, so long as he held Florida. If Bush loses Florida, and wins Ohio, then he needs to hold New Hampshire, and win Wisconsin, and Iowa, and pick up at least one Electoral College vote somewhere else —— Maine's second district, and New Mexico being the best prospects. This would also be the case if Bush won Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Florida but lost Ohio.  In both cases, Kerry would be ahead 270—268 unless Bush picked up the additional 1 or more Electoral College votes somewhere else.  This is because Bush can win at 269 in the House of Representatives, while Kerry needs to get to 270.

I could be wrong, but I think this will be scary close again in the Electoral College. Two weeks ago, most of the action was in the blue states when Bush was up 5 or 6 nationally. Now, the war is on in Florida and Ohio, two red states. The Bush and Kerry campaigns are furiously working these two states and less attention is being paid to the larger blue states, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan. Iowa and Wisconsin are the red states that are clearly in play, and getting lots of attention too.

Having just spent a few days in Florida, I am unsure if the heavy advertising by both sides is having any impact. There are so many messages, and they are on so frequently, I suspect they may be canceling each other out. At some point the voters tune out.  There are some studies suggesting that all the negative messages can sometimes lead to reduced turnout. I think if this happened it would help Bush.

If there is an enormous total vote on Election Day or before (with the early voting allowed in many states), I think this helps Kerry. Kerry has the edge among new voters, and the elderly. The shortage of flu vaccines could be a big deal affecting elderly voting patterns, helping Kerry. On the other hand, the new movie Team America, from the South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, could help Bush with younger voters, particularly in its caustic mocking of Michael Moore, and Hollywood's liberal fellow travelers.

Bush needs to bring some additional blue states into play the next two weeks, to provide a safety valve in case Florida or Ohio are lost. Bush is visiting New Jersey today, where Kerry leads by a few points, far less than the 16 point margin Gore achieved in 2000. Pennsylvania could tighten again too.  Gay marriage is on the ballot in Ohio and Michigan, which could help conservative turnout in both states.  The Bush team is even working the very conservative Amish community, which almost never votes, to show up on November 2nd in Pennsylvania and Ohio (50,000 voting age Amish in each state).

We are down to a battle over small slices of the electorate in a few key states. All the actions, by both sides, suggest that neither side thinks this is over, or getting away from them. We will have two weeks of frantic activity, and nastiness, and then I suspect a long close Election night.