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Inside Politics

Handicapping the race

Can anyone really predict the outcome?

Head to head: Is there a change in the underlying dynamic of the race?
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Carlos Watson
The Inside Edge
America Votes 2004

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- If you had asked me 10 days or even two months ago who I thought would win the election -- in other words, on whom I would have bet my mother's Social Security money -- I would have said the president: wartime commander, lots of money, significant presidential campaign experience, strong unity within his base, potentially helpful ballot initiatives in key states, a good rapid response team, an often stumbling opponent and an extraordinarily determined and savvy political operation.

Yet over the last four days, I have sensed a change in the underlying dynamic of the race -- the long lines of early voters, the missing explosives issue, the greater confidence in Sen. John Kerry's speeches, the continued closeness of polls in Ohio and the return of Bill Clinton have joined with the continuing absence of great economic news, seemingly "small things" such as the flu vaccine shortage and the bitterness in much of the country over the 2000 election and the war in Iraq.

Today -- and today only because things could change tomorrow -- if you asked me to bet my mother's Social Security money on who will win next week, I would give Kerry the slight edge. But before Kerry supporters get excited or President Bush's backers enraged, remember that in 2000, at this same point, the polls and most analysts would have predicted that Bush would win the popular vote.

So nothing is settled. And as many have observed, nothing may be settled even on Election Night. But as we go into the final days of what history will record as an epic election, here are six critical things to remember:

1. Profound policy proposals

Although the sniping in this presidential campaign has often focused on small issues or even nonpolicy matters (e.g., character matters or facial expressions), this election has featured more significant policy proposals than any since 1964.

Indeed, while most elections feature proposals for only one or two major policy shifts, this year Bush and Kerry jointly are offering as many as five fundamental policy changes. From health care, taxation and the environment to Social Security and energy, both candidates have made proposals that if enacted would constitute the most significant changes in those policy areas in almost half a century.

The irony in all of this is that these proposed major changes all are domestic ones, even though this is considered the first significant foreign policy-driven election since 1980. Indeed, although they disagree on Iraq strategy, neither Bush nor Kerry has offered dramatic new policy ideas during the campaign on the use of the military, pre-emptive war, the definition of American national interest or other foreign affairs issues.

So while there is always the caveat that these ideas may not become law even if their sponsor is elected, it is noteworthy that an unusually large number of big - some would say radical - policy ideas are on the table in this campaign.

2. Florida is not everything

Many analysts have suggested that the person who wins two of the "Big Three" swing states -- Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida -- will win the election. While that is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, it is worth noting that there are several legitimate electoral outcomes that would allow both Bush and Kerry to win the election without winning two of the three.

For example, the president could win just one of the Big Three but still get re-elected by picking up two or three upper Midwestern states that narrowly went for Al Gore in 2000 (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa). Kerry would have a harder time winning without two of the Big Three but could still do it if he held on to all of Gore's so-called blue states, including Pennsylvania, and in addition captured two new states in the West (e.g., Nevada and Colorado).

So going into Tuesday night, keep your eye on the Midwest and the Southwest, watch for any surprises (e.g., Hawaii going to the Republicans or Arkansas to the Democrats) and be careful of oversimplified Electoral College calculus.

3. More than just one swing group

Forget all of the talk about "security moms" being the one and only swing group. The reality is that there is more than one group that could swing this election, and in many cases the key swing group varies by region.

In the Big Three, the key swing group is probably African-Americans. In Pennsylvania in 2000, for example, Gore trailed Bush across most of the state by 150,000 votes but made up the margin and then some due to heavy African-American turnout and support in Philadelphia. Gore ultimately won the state by 200,000 votes.

Conversely in Ohio, African-American turnout in Cleveland was comparatively weaker and Gore was not able to catch up to Bush, losing the state by about 170,000 votes. So put simply, if African-American turnout is heavy (meaning it ultimately constitutes 12 percent to 15 percent of the electorate) and it continues to give Democrats nine of every 10 votes, then Kerry could conceivably carry Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio and therefore likely win the presidency.

In the Midwest, Catholics may be the swing vote in Iowa (yes Iowa) and Michigan; suburban technology and service workers may make the difference in Minnesota (and New Hampshire for that matter); and rural voters may decide the election in Wisconsin. In each of these cases, it is not obvious from polling or past behavior in which direction these swing groups will move.

In three Western states where Hispanics may make up 15 percent to 30 percent of the electorate -- Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado -- Latinos could be the key to 19 electoral votes. Significantly, Bush did much better among Hispanic voters in 2000 than Bob Dole did in 1996, earning 35 percent of the vote versus 21 percent. If the president is able to maintain or improve his share of the Hispanic vote, he is likely to win these states. If not, Kerry could prevail.

So again, on Election Night, don't be fooled by simplistic talk of "security moms" as the one and only swing vote.

4. Off television

While a plurality of this year's record political fund raising has been spent on television ads, in the final days, advertising through other venues may be even more important to determining who finally captures the swing votes in each battleground state.

With many voters in places such as Iowa and Nevada suffering from "television fatigue" after seeing more than 2,000 campaign advertisements this year, expect that candidates will try to breakthrough the din with radio ads, direct mail and e-mail, automated campaign phone calls using famous voices, door-to-door canvassing and even political house parties.

The messages across these alternative media are likely to be more aggressive, more personal -- and frankly often untrue. The messages are also likely to be even more finely tailored for individual voters or individual voter groups than television ads -- with one neighbor receiving a letter about education while another gets one about same-sex marriage or the war on terrorism. These alternative media -- and not television -- may ultimately put Kerry or Bush in the White House.

5. Don't assume record turnout will only help Kerry

As I have shared for months, I expect this year's turnout to be the highest since 1968 -- with more than 56 percent of the voting-age population hitting the polls. Record numbers of voters will even cast their ballots early -- either in person or by mail. But while conventional wisdom says this early turnout can only benefit Kerry, do not be so quick to believe it.

While polls show that a majority of first-time voters favor Kerry by a wide margin, record turnout may also drive previously disinterested or lapsed voters as opposed to new voters to the polls. For example, motivated to pass bans on same-sex marriage in key states such as Ohio and Oregon, more evangelical Christians -- who are overwhelmingly Bush supporters -- may turn out this year.

Also, while the Democrats have invested large resources into grass-roots organizing, the Republicans claim to have an impressive and highly efficient volunteer organization in every swing state that includes leaders not just in every county, but literally in every precinct. If this is true, a Bush volunteer army of thousands of people could also be a force to reckon with in the final "get-out-the-vote" days.

6. Final momentum

I have written for a while that I expect the election finally to break in one candidate's favor, with the winner ultimately prevailing by 3 to 6 percentage points. Yet with each passing day, the polls suggest that the race remains stubbornly tied. So what will finally break the race for one candidate or another? We will likely not know until after the election.

But here are several thoughts. First, different issues or events may break the race in different parts of the country. Backlash to voter suppression efforts may lead African-Americans to turn out in yet higher numbers and ultimately give Kerry a win. Or the combination of social and security issues may ultimately convince Hispanics and Midwestern Catholics to back the president. The missing Iraqi explosives could also be the final issue.

Or, significantly, the final straw may not have arrived yet. If this last idea is true, then do not be surprised if the determinative news, damning picture or critical issue is initially broken not by the traditional mainstream U.S. media, but rather by one of the Internet blogs or even a foreign media operation. Interest in this election is intense around the globe, and from swift boats to the CBS News document scandal, the blogs have shown an ability to influence the campaign.

So stay tuned for an intriguing final couple of days -- and please join me the day after the election for analysis and review.

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