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The math needed to beat Bush (continued)

NOT ALL SWING states are created equal. In 2000, there were 21 states where Bush received between 45 percent and 55 percent of the vote. But that list includes some places that are exceedingly unlikely to move into the Democratic column, such as Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Electoral-Vote.com, which relies on the most recent state-by-state poll results, reports that there are currently 22 states where Kerry and Bush are separated by nine points or less. Perhaps a smarter way of looking at this, though, is by considering the 12 states where the lead is four points or less, which Electoral-Vote.com classifies as either "Barely Kerry" (West Virginia, Oregon, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Maine) or "Barely Bush" (Virginia, Arizona, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Nevada). And by the way, Bush’s trip to Stratham notwithstanding, Kerry currently holds a seven-point lead in the Granite State.

Pollsters this year have consistently found that, to an unusual degree, voters have already made up their minds. This leads Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, to say that there really may be fewer than 10 true swing states — much fewer if the race remains tight. Kerry, Sabato says, could pick up New Hampshire and West Virginia, with Florida, Ohio, and Nevada following close behind. If Kerry wins big, he could take Arkansas as well. As for Gore states that Bush might carry, Sabato says he can realistically identify only two — Wisconsin and Oregon — although Iowa, Minnesota, and New Mexico might also slide red if there is an unexpectedly large Bush victory.

"Truth be told, unless it’s a landslide, the map is going to look much like it did in 2000," says Sabato. "I’ve studied votes all my life, and voting is like inertia. Objects in motion tend to remain in motion, objects at rest tend to stay at rest."

The differences among the swing states argue against any great movement to one side or the other. They are located in all sections of the country. They range from virtually all white (Maine and New Hampshire) to ethnically diverse (Florida and New Mexico). They are affluent, they are poor, and they are in the middle. To be sure, Kerry, as the challenger, may be able to base at least some of his appeal on issues of local concern. According to Census data, the swing states of West Virginia, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Tennessee are among the bottom 10 in terms of median income, with Maine not far behind. The swing states of Oregon, South Carolina, Michigan, Washington, and Ohio have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. That gives Kerry nine swing states where a critique of Bush’s economic policies might play better than in the country as a whole.

The Bush campaign is also reportedly counting on the support of military families, whose backing was crucial to the Republicans in 2000. Kerry is clearly attempting to cut into that appeal, not just on the basis of his own well-publicized military service, but on rising worries about the war in Iraq. Here, too, Kerry has some targets of opportunity. According to the Military Family Resource Center, the swing states of Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Washington, South Carolina, and Colorado have among the country’s highest populations of active military personnel and family members. As in 2000, Florida is likely to be unusually close. With more than 200,000 military voters in that state, any change in sentiment against the commander-in-chief could prove decisive.

PERHAPS THE most frustrating thing about the Bush-Gore contest four years ago was not just that the candidates focused on a small number of states, but that they targeted the most small-minded of voters as well: those disengaged independents who just couldn’t make up their minds. Thus, Gore talked ceaselessly about a "lockbox" for Social Security and a prescription-drug benefit for the elderly. Bush promoted himself as a "compassionate conservative," which many voters interpreted as being just like Bill Clinton, only with lower taxes and less oral sex.

Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any danger of that happening in 2004. Kerry and Bush are talking about the biggest of issues — war and peace, terrorism, and the economy, with a nod to vital but less-life-and-death matters such as public education, the environment, stem-cell research, same-sex marriage, and prospective appointments to the Supreme Court. They may be spending all their time in the swing states, but they’re addressing national and international issues. "I think this election feels more important compared with the last three elections," Christian Science Monitor White House reporter Linda Feldmann said at a recent forum on presidential politics. "In this election it seems that everything is on the table."

Certainly, the campaigns will try to persuade undecided voters. But they’re putting more energy into identifying their potential supporters in swing states. Take, for instance, Americans Coming Together (ACT), the beneficiary of Bruce Springsteen’s largesse. At a news conference during the Democratic National Convention, the organization’s top officers laid out ambitious plans to send canvassers into 15 to 17 swing states this fall, going so far as to arm door-knockers with Palm organizers that can play short videos on various issues. ACT’s president, Ellen Malcolm, said the organization has already raised $80 million of its $125 million goal, and has signed up 80,000 members. Steve Rosenthal, ACT’s chief executive officer, said his group has 541 people working full-time and 1500 canvassers, mainly volunteers, out every night. When ACT’s chief-of-staff, former top Clinton aide Harold Ickes, was asked about federal campaign-finance laws that prevent so-called 527s (named after a provision in the tax code) such as ACT from doing any direct politicking, he fairly sneered: "You cannot expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate.... These are words of art in our trade. We can say Kerry is great on this and Bush is terrible on that."

Or consider the Swing State Project. According to Riessen Kinghorne, a board member of the Massachusetts liberal organization Citizens for Participation in Political Action who’s helping to run the project, about 900 people have already signed up over the Internet (www.swingstateproject.org) to work on phone banks and knock on doors in hopes of turning out Kerry voters in November. Kinghorne says that the effort — which will begin in New Hampshire later this month — is aimed at least in part at persuading progressives to back Kerry over Ralph Nader. "Although we certainly support a lot of the things that Nader stands for, we need to vote for Kerry," he says. (In 2000, Nader’s vote totals in New Hampshire and Florida were greater than Bush’s margin of victory, leading Gore supporters to contend that Nader cost them the election.)

The centrist New Democrat Network is trying a different tack, targeting Hispanic voters in four swing states: Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, and Nevada. It’s a promising approach. According to an analysis by Robert David Sullivan, of the nonpartisan magazine CommonWealth, capitalizing on population growth in regions where most Latinos live "presents the greatest potential for the Democrats to pick up electoral votes in 2004." (Sullivan’s "Beyond Red and Blue: The New Map of American Politics" can be found online at www.massinc.org.)

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Issue Date: August 13 - 19, 2004
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