Down to the wire

The Kerry and Bush campaigns both projected confidence as they raced toward the finish line, but the polls -- and a surge of new voters -- may give the Democrats the momentum.

By Tim Grieve
Published October 31, 2004 5:57PM (EST)

Ten long months ago, John Kerry's last-minute, come-from-behind victory in the New Hampshire primaries put him on the path to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Kerry returned to New Hampshire Sunday for a triumphant rally as aides predicted that he will win the White House Tuesday.

Looking out at a sea of supporters holding signs that read "two more days," Kerry said: "I can't remember when the countdown started, but I can't wait until I see 'one' tomorrow and 'zero' on Tuesday, and then we'll roll up our sleeves and get to work for America."

Kerry exuded confidence under gray New Hampshire skies, and his aides made it clear they were feeling it, too. As the campaign flew from Ohio to New Hampshire Sunday afternoon, Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters: "We're very confident that we are bringing this home." McCurry said the campaign's confidence was based on an "assessment of many things: the public polls, the internal polls ... the reports that we're getting from our state directors on the ground and their assessment of the turnout and mobilization efforts."

On the ground in New Hampshire, Kerry spokesman David Wade told Salon that he feels good about the race -- particularly based on the crowds he is seeing on the trail. While Kerry drew small numbers in Wisconsin and Iowa Saturday, a huge crowd jammed little Warren, Ohio, to see Kerry Saturday night, and Manchester police said that 13,000 people were on hand for the rally Sunday afternoon. Earlier this week, George W. Bush drew just 4,000 supporters in the same New Hampshire city.

The weekend's national polls certainly give the Kerry campaign room for at least cautious optimism. While polls from Newsweek and TIPP had big leads for Bush, most of the other national polls showed the race either tied or with one or the other candidate holding a statistically insignificant lead. A CNN/USAToday/Gallup poll released Sunday night had Bush up by two among so-called "likely voters," but Gallup said the race was tied at 49-49 under a "statistical model that allocated undecided voters to the candidates." Sunday night's CBS/New York Times poll gave Bush a three-point lead, which was inside the poll's margin of error. A Fox News poll had Kerry up 47-45 percent among registered voters. Tracking polls from the Washington Post/ABC and Zogby both had the race tied Sunday.

Confident that undecided voters and new registrants will cut their way when they walk into their polling places, Democrats have long said that they can win the popular vote Tuesday even if their candidate trails by a couple of points in the polls on the eve of the election. Of course, the Republicans espouse a different view. Bush-Cheney pollster Matthew Dowd told CBS Sunday that undecided voters will "worst-case split their ballots" between the two candidates.

In Dayton, Ohio, Sunday morning, Kerry spokeswoman Allison Dobson said -- as Democrats have for months -- that the most important number to watch is Bush's share of the vote. Unless undecideds break heavily for the incumbent -- and they almost never do -- the president's number in the final polls is usually his number on Election Day. In polling over the last few days, only Newsweek has Bush as high at 50 percent, and that's among the respondents Newsweek deems "likely voters." Among registered voters -- a measure that has been more reliable in recent elections -- Bush gets only 48 percent of the vote in the Newsweek poll, less in several of the others. On a call with reporters Saturday afternoon, Kerry advisor Tad Devine said Bush is "mired in the mid-40s" in the campaign's own internal polls in battleground states.

Unless Ralph Nader and other third-party candidates perform dramatically better than anyone expects Tuesday, 48 percent won't be enough to win the presidential race. If undecided voters break toward Kerry, he'll do better than that. And with the Osama bin Laden tape seeming like yesterday's news -- it seems to be having little or no effect in the polls -- Kerry's advisors continue to believe that undecideds will ultimately be with them.

Of course, it's the Electoral College that matters, and the race in the states is going to be close. It takes 270 Electoral College votes to win. Here's where the math seems to stand now. Bush has either a lock or a pretty tight hold on 227 votes. That number gives Bush the quasi-battleground states of Nevada, Colorado and Arkansas. Kerry is solid or nearly so in states that add up to 232 electoral votes. The number includes New Hampshire, Michigan and Pennsylvania -- three states that aren't sure bets but are pretty good ones.

If that math holds, Bush will need 43 more votes to get him to the magic number of 270. Kerry will need 38 votes. For the final 48 hours, the candidates and their surrogates will troll for those votes in the six real battlegrounds left: Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and, to a lesser degree, New Mexico.

Ohio and Florida are the big fish, of course, and the campaign schedules reflect that fact. Kerry started the day Sunday in Ohio and ended it in Florida, where he spoke at big late-night rally in Tampa. He'll make the reverse trip Monday, finishing the day in Cleveland at a late-night election eve rally with Bruce Springsteen. (Kerry will make a stop in Detroit along the way Monday, but McCurry said it was to keep a commitment the campaign made -- and not a sign that the candidate is in trouble in Michigan.) Bush began his day Sunday in Florida and ended it in Ohio.

If either candidate wins both Ohio and Florida, the election is over right there. Ohio has 20 votes and Florida has 27; their combined 47 would be enough to put either Bush or Kerry over the top. But both states are closer than close right now, and they seem to be swinging back and forth. Kerry seemed to have the lead in Ohio, but now polls show the state trending back toward Bush. The president once led consistently in Florida polls, but now the polls are much more mixed. The parties have flooded both states with get-out-the-vote workers as well as lawyers, and the action in both places will be intense -- and intensely fought -- over the next two days and maybe well beyond. Both sides know that the game can be won or lost in the two battlegrounds, and they'll fight there accordingly. Going into the final 48 hours, it seems entirely possible that either Bush or Kerry could win both Ohio and Florida, and with them the next four years.

But if Ohio and Florida split, Kerry will have the inside track to the White House. Assuming that he holds onto Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Hampshire, Kerry with Florida in his pocket would have 259 Electoral College votes, just 11 shy of what he needs to win. Any two of the remaining battlegrounds -- Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico and Wisconsin -- would put him in the White House. That seems perfectly possible and probably even likely. Two new polls out this weekend have Kerry up by 8 in Minnesota. Kerry spokesman David Wade said the race is "a lot closer" in Wisconsin. Three of the five most recent polls give Kerry the lead in the Badger State, but the most recent one -- Sunday night's Gallup Poll -- had Bush up by a seemingly improbably eight points. Iowa will be tougher for Kerry to win, but not impossible. He has been trailing in Iowa, but the most recent polls are mixed. New Mexico is the longest shot: Bush will return to the state on the way home to Texas Monday night, but it's too far off the beaten battleground track for Kerry to make another visit before Tuesday.

For Bush to win without Florida, he would have to win not just Ohio but also Minnesota and Wisconsin plus either Iowa or New Mexico.

If the states split the other way -- that is, if Bush wins Florida and Kerry wins Ohio -- Kerry would still have the better shot at hitting 270. Again, assuming that Kerry holds on to Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Hampshire, Ohio would put him at 252, 18 votes short of 270. Wisconsin and Minnesota would put him there, as would either Wisconsin or Minnesota plus Iowa and New Mexico. With Florida on his side, Bush would have 254 votes. He could win with Iowa -- the Midwestern battleground where he seems to have the best shot -- plus either Minnesota or Wisconsin. A win in New Mexico wouldn't be enough for Bush unless he somehow managed to take both Wisconsin and Minnesota, in which case he wouldn't need New Mexico anyway.

So the math favors Kerry now, but that doesn't mean Democratic job hunters should be sending job applications to the Kerry transition team just yet. The margins are close in any number of states, and small movements could easily tip the balance. It's still entirely possible that Kerry will lose both Ohio and Florida, although Sunday night's Gallup Poll had him up in both. New Hampshire could fall back into the Republican column, and Hawaii could switch over to Bush. It's at least conceivable that Pennsylvania will slip back into Bush's hands, and Gallup suggested Sunday night that it was doing so. Michigan seems firm, but Kerry's visit there Monday -- no matter what McCurry says -- suggests that it's less than a 100 percent lock. And Kerry wouldn't have been in New Hampshire two days before the election if the campaign thought that its four Electoral College votes were money in the bank.

McCurry acknowledged Sunday that -- with the exception of Michigan -- the candidate's schedule is the best indicator of the states where Kerry's advisors still have concerns. That means Ohio and Florida, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. Kerry will start the day Tuesday in Wisconsin, pushing hard there because it's a state that allows people to register to vote on Election Day. The campaign will then travel to Boston, where Kerry will have lunch at the Union Oyster House, a tradition of his on Election Days. He'll spend the rest of the afternoon doing satellite TV interviews with local stations in critical states. Sometime between now and then, McCurry said the campaign may squeeze in a few more stops -- most likely in Ohio and Wisconsin because Florida is too far away for a last-minute addition.

McCurry said that Kerry will focus on his domestic agenda at campaign appearances on Monday and Tuesday. He argued that Bush and Kerry now "stand as equals" in voters' eyes when it comes to national security and the war on terrorism, particularly after Americans learned that munitions had disappeared from Al Qaqaa and Osama bin Laden had reappeared on their TV screens. Internal polling shows that voters can't name anything Bush will do in his second term, McCurry said. By laying out his agenda, again and again, McCurry said Kerry can make further inroads with undecideds.

Reporters traveling with the Bush campaign are surely getting the opposite spin from the other side. Karl Rove said over the weekend that he believes Bush has a "clear lead" in the Electoral College race, and Bush's small advantage in some of the most recent national polls may give the talking heads of television cause to suggest that the president is on the road to a second term. But as the final hours of this race tick away -- as the "two more days" signs at Sunday's rallies are replaced with "one more day" versions Monday -- the Kerry campaign says this thing is tipping in its direction.

At church in Ohio Sunday morning, Kerry quoted lines from "Amazing Grace" that put poetry to the hope his staff is feeling. "''Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far," he said, "'and grace will lead me home.'" Kerry is not home yet, but he may be getting closer.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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George W. Bush John F. Kerry