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Race to the Wire

At the beginning of this presidential campaign, virtually any serious political discussion began with twin premises: Our country was as evenly divided between the two major parties as it had been at any time in modern history, and our politics had become more polarized than at any other time in memory.

As the campaign progressed, President Bush's job-approval ratings continually balanced on a knife's edge-running higher than those of past presidents who went on to lose re-election, but lower than those who eventually won a second term. Now, as we enter the final days of this campaign, the nation remains closely and deeply divided-over Bush's performance, the war in Iraq, and a host of other issues, large and small.

We've had many close presidential races before, including those in 1948, 1960, 1968, 1976, and, of course, 2000. Indeed, five of the 14 presidential races since World War II have been quite close. In the absence of some extraordinary external event, this undoubtedly will be another.

My guess is that going into Election Day, we are not going to know for sure who is going to win. But anyone who wants to venture a guess would be well advised to look at the averages of all the current polls, rather than at any individual one. (See a Web site called RealClearPolitics.com, which each day computes a seven-day moving average of presidential poll results.)

Also, focus on Bush's support level, not the point spread. Bush could be a couple of points ahead going into Election Day and still lose. Undecided voters almost always break heavily in favor of challengers when the incumbent is well known. If Bush draws less than 48 percent support, his chances of winning a second term drop dramatically, especially if independent candidate Ralph Nader (who got 2.7 percent of the vote in 2000) and other minor candidates pull a combined 2 to 3 percent of the total.

Finally, ignore Electoral College projections. If someone wins the national popular vote by 1 percentage point or more, he'll almost certainly win the electoral vote as well. If the popular vote is extremely close, then the race will be a dead heat in at least a half-dozen states; as a result, no poll, no matter how sophisticated, will likely be of any help in divining who will win the Electoral College and, thus, the White House.

Bush's Disadvantages

Bush and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry both head toward November 2 with certain disadvantages. On the Bush side of that ledger, the economy is not recovering nearly as robustly as his administration had anticipated, and job creation has lagged far behind past economic recoveries. Bush will be the first president since Herbert Hoover to have presided over a net loss of jobs during his four years in office. Especially in some key battleground states, most notably Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and West Virginia, the economy remains a distinct liability for Bush, notwithstanding statements by economists who maintain that under the nation's current economic conditions, any president should expect to be re-elected.

While economists tend to focus on statistics such as the growth rate of the gross domestic product, they don't seem to realize how troubled voters are about this administration's sluggish job-creation record and the patchwork nature of the current recovery. This year, the economy is -- at best -- a wash for Bush in some states; in others, it is a distinct liability.

This is a truly remarkable situation, given the phenomenal level of fiscal stimulus that has been injected into this economy: three rounds of federal income-tax cuts (a fourth, just signed into law, will not make an impact before the election), historically low interest rates, a cheap dollar that encourages exports of U.S. goods, and very high levels of federal spending. If the American economy were a person, the patient would be pumped up on intravenous epinephrine, nearly to the point of convulsing with stimulation.

The second liability that Bush carries into this general election is a problematic and worsening war in Iraq. Early on, when war clouds were first gathering, the administration strongly implied a direct connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks. Later, the administration's justification for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq shifted to the "certainty" that Iraq possessed, or would soon possess, nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. Next, the administration began to emphasize its desire to bring freedom and democracy to that troubled country. And most recently, Bush has said that Saddam was flouting the rules of the United Nations' Oil-for-Food program.

The first phase of the war went extremely well for the U.S. military. American and coalition forces cut through the Iraqi army as a hot knife slides through butter. But over the past year and a half, insurgencies have kept U.S. forces bogged down and reconstruction efforts to a minimum. Critics have rightly charged that the United States did not commit sufficient troops to the effort, did not crack down on lawlessness in the first few days after the takeover of Iraq, did not protect Iraq's infrastructure, and did not properly think through the effects of dismantling the Iraqi military -- a step that threw thousands upon thousands of trained killers out of work and increased their anger at the United States. The United States appears to be like the dog who chased the car and caught it: We captured Iraq but then didn't know what to do next.

The focus on the economy's problems, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq left the White House little time, money, or inclination to deal with other domestic issues. And that record of inattention has further weakened the president's standing with many voters.

Kerry's Disadvantages

Kerry entered this race with problems of his own. A few quickly come to mind: His inability to connect with voters in a personal way, his position on Iraq that defies easy explanation or understanding, and his relatively undistinguished 20-year career in the Senate, where no major legislation bears his name.

Nevertheless, when any president seeks re-election, that contest is, first and foremost, a referendum on the incumbent. Do voters think the president has performed well enough to deserve re-election? Are they confident that the president would lead the country well if given another four years?

Although these are clearly central questions, it is important to note that the challengers who have beaten incumbents over the last three decades have had interesting, even compelling, personalities.

In 1976, for example, President Ford was weakened by a bad economy and his pardon of former President Nixon, but those weren't the only factors in his defeat. His challenger, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, was a Naval Academy graduate, a former nuclear submarine officer, and a peanut farmer who had a family that seemed to have come straight out of the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. Carter was an interesting person who had a message of honesty. He was also an outsider when, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the nation desperately wanted a breath of fresh air. When the country tired of Carter, along came challenger Ronald Reagan, a former governor of California who had a winning personality and an anti-government message that resonated perfectly with the mood of much of the electorate in 1980.

In 1992, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic challenger to President George H.W. Bush, had a fascinating personality that he combined with a focus on domestic issues that was perfectly tuned for a country just coming out of a recession and chafing under a president who was perceived as being too consumed with foreign policy and inattentive to economic and other domestic concerns. Kerry doesn't fit the Carter-Reagan-Clinton mold. With very rare exceptions, Kerry never comes across as someone whom the average voter would enjoy taking on a fishing trip or inviting home for a cup of coffee.

Because weapons of mass destruction were never found in Iraq, because the claim of a link between Iraq and 9/11 has been widely discredited, because the U.S. death toll has climbed above 1,000, and because Iraq is nowhere near being transformed into a peaceful democracy, the Democratic Party might have been better off nominating former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean or some other candidate who opposed the war all along and thus could take a cleaner angle of attack on Bush. As it stands, Kerry's complicated record of having voted to give Bush authority to attack Iraq but then having second-guessed how Bush used that authority has exposed the Democratic nominee not only to criticism but also to ridicule. The perception that Kerry is a flip-flopper goes to the heart of voters' desire for a strong and resolute commander-in-chief.

While many voters openly question Bush's wisdom and judgment, they widely view his strength of conviction as one of his strong points -- even though critics deride that trait as stubbornness. Many observers say that Kerry can't persuasively explain his position on Iraq because his vote to give Bush a green light for war with Iraq was largely a matter of political expediency -- or so they suspect. When I have seen elected officials struggle to explain a controversial position, usually the problem is that their hearts didn't match their votes.

On the matter of Kerry's having left few footprints in the Senate over the past two decades, the most plausible explanation was advanced in a New York Times profile suggesting that Kerry had served more as an investigator than as a maker of laws. Folks mainly associate Kerry with Senate investigations into the Iran-Contra affair and the BCCI international banking scandal, for example.

While the nickname "Live-Shot Kerry," coined by the Boston media because of the senator's zest for TV coverage and publicity, may be unfair, Kerry does not seem to have tried to build a strong legislative platform on which to run. In fact, in his convention acceptance speech, he hardly mentioned his Senate tenure.

The Final Stretch

So, we enter the final campaign stretch with an evenly divided and polarized nation, and with two candidates sufficiently handicapped by issues, circumstances, or shortcomings to prevent either of them from winning an easy victory. Both Bush and Kerry are backed by parties and outside groups that have put together unprecedented voter-registration, contact, and get-out-the-vote operations. This election is expected to have the highest voter turnout rate in at least 30 years.

Each candidate is drawing nearly 90 percent support from his own party. The gender gap is alive and well, with Bush having an advantage among men that roughly matches Kerry's lead among women. Indeed much of the reason that Kerry lagged behind Bush after the GOP convention was that Kerry was underperforming among women, relative to Bush's strength among men. But the first debate seemed to have reinvigorated Kerry's support among women.

Although Kerry early on tried to expand the playing field by, for example, airing television ads in Louisiana and Virginia -- states that Bush carried in 2000 -- he has pulled his ads from them in order to concentrate on more- realistic targets. The one "new" state on the battleground list is Colorado, historically a "red" Republican state. In this election, it is among the closest and hardest-fought battlefields.

Kerry can count on 12 states and the District of Columbia for a total of 179 electoral votes: California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), D.C. (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), New Jersey (15), New York (31), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), and Washington (11). Three states are leaning toward Kerry: Maine (4), Michigan (17), and Oregon (7), bringing Kerry's overall total to 207 electoral votes, 63 short of the magic 270.

Bush starts off able to rely upon victories in 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). Plus, West Virginia (5) leans toward Bush. So Bush is 57 electoral votes short of victory.

Ten states are simply too close to call: Colorado (9), Florida (27), Iowa (7), Minnesota (10), Nevada (5), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), Ohio (20), Pennsylvania (21), and Wisconsin (10). Bush needs 57 of those 118 electoral votes; Kerry needs 63.

In mid-August, Kerry had a modest but measurable lead in two-thirds to three-quarters of these 10 states. Then Bush turned the situation around and, heading into the first debate, had a statistically significant lead in perhaps three-quarters of them. Now, as new state-level polling comes in, these states are too close to call.

At this stage of the campaign, every little thing matters -- or could matter. A late misstep by either side or a major external event, and all bets are off in this exciting race to the wire.

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