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The math needed to beat Bush
As few as 10 states could determine the election. At the moment, Kerry’s electoral count looks better than his popular vote.

STRATHAM, NEW HAMPSHIRE — To hear George W. Bush tell it, there was no place on earth he’d rather have been last Friday than right where he was: in the middle of Stella and Douglas Scamman’s farm, soaking in the affection of 3500 or so cheering supporters. "Thank y’all for coming," he said, all tie-less informality. He gripped the podium, the sleeves of his light-blue shirt rolled up, and leaned forward slightly. "Listen," he said, "there is no better way to spend a Friday afternoon than at a picnic in New Hampshire."

Bush’s warm feelings toward the Granite State were understandable. Though he lost the 2000 Republican primary to Arizona senator John McCain, he came back that fall to edge out Al Gore here in the general election. New Hampshire may have only four electoral votes, but if Gore had won them, he’d have become president. Which is why New Hampshire — which used to slip back into obscurity following its snow-and-ice-bound, first-in-the-nation primary — is likely to be a favored stop for both the Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards campaigns right through Election Day.

So forget everything you think you know about the 2004 presidential campaign. Yes, Senator John Kerry and Bush have been locked in a virtual dead heat for months. Yes, the blue-red divide appears to be as even as it was four years ago. But the Kerry-Bush race isn’t really a national campaign; it only looks that way on the surface. The key to the 2004 race is the handful of swing states — perhaps as few as 10 — where the candidates are so close that it could go either way. And here, Kerry is in surprisingly good shape. According to the most recent state-by-state polls available, compiled by the Web site Electoral-Vote.com, the senator is currently leading Bush in electoral votes by a margin of 307 to 231 — 37 more than the 270 he needs to win.

Then again, you’d be wise not to bet next week’s paycheck on a Kerry victory. By their very definition, swing states are those where the election is closest. In Missouri and Wisconsin, for instance, Kerry leads by just one point — well within the margin of error. What’s important to keep in mind is not who’s leading at any given moment, but how the race will actually be fought. And where the candidates will spend most of their time.

If you live in a solidly Republican state, such as Texas, Utah, or Georgia, or a solidly Democratic state, such as New York, California, or Massachusetts, you’re no more likely to see George W. Bush or John Kerry landing on the tarmac of your local airport than you are to see a total eclipse of the sun. But if you live in a state that could go either way, such as New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, or Florida, prepare to be bombarded by television ads, door-knocking canvassers, and Secret Service roadblocks, as the campaigns devote all their resources to identifying their supporters and getting them to the polls.

This year, you won’t even be able to see Bruce Springsteen unless you’re from a swing state. Last week the liberal group MoveOn.org announced that Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, and others will participate in a series of Vote for Change concerts to benefit America Coming Together, a Democratic-leaning political-action committee organizing get-out-the-vote efforts in 17 swing states. Naturally, the concerts are all being held in those states.

For the campaigns themselves, this narrow focus is the best way to allocate scarce resources. Despite the massive fundraising they have done — some $200 million for Bush, and nearly as much for Kerry — each side will have just $75 million in public money to spend this fall. That may sound like a lot, but it goes only so far. "In the context of a campaign like this, it’s not huge, and you really do have to make decisions about where you’re going to spend your money," says a Democrat who’s familiar with the thinking of the Kerry campaign, but who asked not to be identified.

Such narrowcasting has become so prevalent that in 2000 — for the first time in the television era — neither major-party candidate bought any political advertising on national television, according to Northeastern University political scientist William Mayer, editor of The Making of the Presidential Candidates, 2004. Instead, the campaigns opted to buy all their time on local stations in swing states. Mayer expects Bush and Kerry to do the same — especially if the contest remains as close as it is at the moment.

"If the election is one or two points, then I think you sort of say, well, let’s concentrate on these handful of states where a little bit of campaigning might make a difference," Mayer says. What could change that dynamic, he adds, is if one of the candidates falls substantially behind, which would force him to gamble on a more national strategy. "If you’re down five or 10, then you say, well, you know, let’s go for broke a little more and see if we can catch fire somewhere," Mayer says.

But with the two major parties stuck in a dead heat for the past four years, there would appear to be little chance of that happening.

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Issue Date: August 13 - 19, 2004
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