WASHINGTON -- Forget the national polls. Forget Pennsylvania, Missouri, Arizona, and Oregon. Forget the lists of 16 or 18 swing states being tossed about in the press. You can tell who will be our next president by watching only six states: Florida, Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa.
Getting more votes than the other guy on November 2, as private citizen Al Gore can tell you, isn't worth very much. To become president, you need 270 votes in the Electoral College. There are 47 quadrillion possible outcomes, and so any political junkie needs to find a way to focus his observation.
To begin with, each candidate has his base. Bush has already clinched 21 states (mostly in the South and the West), worth 179 votes. Kerry, with his lock on California, Illinois, and the most of the Northeast, has 165 electoral votes secured in 13 states (including the District of Columbia).
This leaves only 17 states and 194 electoral votes in play. These states are the so-called "swing states" that could reasonably go either way. But watching that whole group is more work than is necessary. Sure, Kerry could win Tennessee, but that will happen only in a blowout. Maybe Bush will carry Minnesota, but it would take a Reaganesque win for that to occur. Or Kerry could lose Pennsylvania, but only as part of a much greater electoral disaster that wouldn't make losing this state the margin. The same is true with Bush and Arizona -- W won't find himself after the election saying "if only I had won Arizona!"
So, after the base and the swing states, a third class is needed, consisting of those states that could make the difference. Let us call them the "marginal states." They are, again, three that Bush won in 2000, followed by three that Gore won: Florida (with 27 votes in the Electoral College), Ohio (20), and West Virginia (5); Michigan (17), Wisconsin (10), and Iowa (7).
If the election is close, Bush will have, without these six marginal states, 222 votes to Kerry's 230 (this includes New Hampshire, which Bush carried in 2000). This means Kerry would need 37 votes out of the marginal states to get to 270 and Bush would need 48. Bush can get those 48 by holding on to all three he won last time. However, those victories are tenuous for various reasons.
Florida needs no explanation. John Hagelin of the Natural Law Party -- who has since launched his own government ("the U.S. Peace Government") and declared himself president -- garnered more than four times the 537-vote Bush margin of victory in Florida. One fewer road block here, one better eye-glass prescription there, and Kerry can easily take this one.
Ohio may not be as Republican as it used to be. Democrats say a quarter-million Buckeyes have lost their jobs since Bush took office. The bleeding of manufacturing jobs -- although it owes more to increased efficiency than to "offshoring" -- could sink Bush, unless he can get voters to vote on abortion and gay marriage instead of their jobs. West Virginia is similar. Bush's win here in 2000 was largely due to Gore's wanting to outlaw coal. Kerry's green talk, if Bush plays it right, could also be trouble, but this state almost always goes for the Democrat.
If Bush wins Ohio and Florida but drops West Virginia, the election is a 269-269 tie. If he loses all three, he is toast. But even if he drops one or two of the Red marginal states, he can win by picking up some Electoral College votes in the Blue marginal states.
Wisconsin could be drifting rightward. As the abortion issue grows in prominence (as it is growing around the nation and against the parties' will), the blue-collar workers in Milwaukee will start voting more Republican. Indeed, some Wisconsin polls (though not of likely voters) show Bush way ahead there.
And Michigan Democratic voters have further reason to vote Republican this time. Kerry, despite his family's SUVs, is almost as much of a threat to the internal combustion engine as was Al Gore. Iowa is a 50-50 state, where the natural American tendency to trust Republicans in a time of war could be enough to tip the scales to Bush.
So, over the next five months, tune out the distractions, and focus on these six states. They'll be picking our president.
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