George W. Bush was opening a significant lead over John Kerry until that fateful Thursday night when he slouched at his podium and appeared disgruntled and tired. The national polls then started to tighten and Bush’s second debate performance, along with that of his running mate, seems to have been good enough to stop the bleeding and freeze the race.
Whatever the national polls may say, though, a simple national plurality won’t elect a president this year. A series of concurrent majorities in states all over the nation will choose the next president and that race is not quite as tight as the national polls indicate. The battle for the electoral college is close enough that either candidate has the possibility of winning, but Kerry has a hard row to hoe to get there.
After consulting numerous state polls and historical trends, here is where I see the race going into the final presidential debate.
Bush Red: Bush seems to have wrapped up 21 states with 176 electoral votes. Not surprisingly, most of these states spread through Dixie and up into the upper Midwest and mountain states.
Kerry Blue: Kerry seems to have insurmountable leads in 10 states and the District of Columbia, worth a combined 153 electoral votes. More than half of Kerry’s solid votes come from just California and New York. The remainder of the Kerry states come from the northeast corridor, except for Hawaii and Illinois.
Looking only at the states solidly in one camp or another gives the impression of a rather tight electoral-college battle. However, the race in the paler states demonstrates Bush’s significant advantage.
Bush Pink: Bush seems likely to win another 8 states worth 88 electoral votes.
Kerry Powder Blue: Kerry is poised to win 5 more states worth 67 electoral votes, including the essential states of Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Toss-up Yellow: Six states are toss-ups and represent 53 electoral-college votes. Additionally, this year Maine’s rural 2nd congressional district seems to be up for grabs. Maine has never split its electoral-college votes but this year it seems possible that Bush could win the district but lose the state to Kerry.
In the states that are clearly leaning one way or another, Bush is ahead 264 electoral votes to 221 for John Kerry. That means that as of right now, if he holds his leads in red and pink states, Bush only needs six electoral votes from the yellow states that have not yet made up their minds. That means Bush can actually do what many have thought impossible for a Republican–win without Ohio. Bush could win New Hampshire, which he won in 2000 and New Mexico, which he only lost by 366 votes in 2000 and win the presidency with 273 electoral votes. If he wins Ohio, he can win the presidency handily without taking any other of the Yellow toss-up states. Indeed, if Bush wins Ohio’s 20 electoral votes, which I assume in the end he will, he can afford to lose up to 14 of the electoral votes now showing pink and leaning his way.
Kerry’s road to the presidency is much more difficult. Starting from a base of only 220 electors, he has to win almost all the yellow toss-up states while holding all those leaning his way today. In fact, as things stand now, the only yellow state he can afford to lose is New Hampshire, which would give him exactly the 270 needed to win. Kerry has almost no room for error. Unless he can cut into the states leaning Bush’s way, he has to run the table in every toss-up state except the Granite State. If he loses Ohio, which is likely, he would have to find 17-20 electoral votes from the pink states leaning Bush. He can do it, but a strategy for Kerry to win without Ohio could almost only come about by pulling off a victory in that state we remember so well from 2000–Florida.
Even after his poor debate performance, the electoral map tilts Bush’s way with Kerry still trying to firm up the Gore states of 2000 so he can move aggressively to take the battle to Bush on his home turf. Rather than the national polls, follow the yellow-state road to the White House in 2004.
–Gary L. Gregg is editor of Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College and Considering the Bush Presidency (with Mark Rozell). A faculty associate with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Gregg is also NRO’s official electoral-college dean.