If someone put a gun to my head today and asked me to name this contest's winner, I might have to say, "Fire away," because I honestly don't know. Ten days ago, I would have said, "The race is close, but President Bush has the advantage." Six weeks ago, I would have said, "It's close, but John Kerry has an edge."
The national polls now range from showing Bush up by 7 points to showing Kerry up by 2. The average is a Bush lead of about 2 points. But over the past month or so, Bush has been drawing about 2 points less support in battleground states than in the nation as a whole, moving the contest back to square one.
The movement in the polls seems to be mainly among women. Before the first debate, Kerry had been underperforming among women, and some observers had attributed that fact to heightened concerns about terrorism among "security moms," particularly after the horrific scenes from the school siege in Russia. Other observers contended that Kerry's problem was that a good many women who normally vote Democratic just didn't like Kerry or his wife.
Whatever the reason, Kerry's first debate performance seems to have largely fixed his problem with women voters. And the first debate seemed to have helped Kerry a bit among some men as well.
Nothing in the vice presidential debate seems to have significantly changed the equation. Each running mate was more articulate than his partner had been. The differences between the two sides were sharpened, but the race stayed effectively frozen until the second presidential debate.
This race's tightness is evident not just in results of the national and collective battleground state polls but also in how closely divided the Electoral College appears to be.
Let's assume that Bush starts off with a base of 24 states with 208 electoral votes: Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arizona (10), Arkansas (6), Georgia (15), Idaho (4), Indiana (11), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (9), Mississippi (6), Missouri (11), Montana (3), Nebraska (5), North Carolina (15), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (8), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (34), Utah (5), Virginia (13), and Wyoming (3).
The Kerry campaign made a stab at seven of these states, but it has now pulled its broadcast advertising out of them. With the exception of Colorado, Bush has now locked down all of the states that had just been "leaning" his way. Colorado is now a toss-up. So Bush is 62 electoral votes short of victory.
Kerry starts off with 12 jurisdictions that have a total of 168 electoral votes: California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), the District of Columbia (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), New Jersey (15), New York (31), Rhode Island (4), and Vermont (3). Four more states are leaning toward Kerry: Maine (4), Michigan (17), Oregon (7), and Washington (11), bringing Kerry to 15 states plus the District. That's 207 electoral votes -- 63 short of the magic 270.
Still up for grabs are 123 electoral votes: Colorado (9), Florida (27), Iowa (7), Minnesota (10), Nevada (5), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), Ohio (20), Pennsylvania (21), West Virginia (5), and Wisconsin (10).
Bush needs 62 of those votes; Kerry needs 63. Hard to get much more even than that.