By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 3/4/2004 11:18:14 PM ET 2004-03-05T04:18:14

If the voters had one lesson drummed into them in 2000, it was that the process of choosing the next president is not one national election but 51 separate elections held in each of the states and the District of Columbia.

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The vote in the Electoral College is what matters and the electoral vote will not necessarily mirror the total number of popular votes a candidate receives.

Four years ago, Democrat Al Gore carried New York and California by enormous margins, nearly 1.3 million votes in California and 1.7 million votes in New York. This bulked up Gore’s lead in the nationwide popular vote.

To this day, Democrats talk about Gore's 500,000 vote surplus in the popular vote, but it was just that, surplus. It did nothing to help him in the electoral vote tally.

If a candidate carries a state by only one vote or if he wins by one million votes, it has the same effect: He wins all of that state’s electoral votes.

There are a total of 538 electoral votes, allocated among the states on the basis of how many members of the House and Senate each state has. The biggest state, California, has 55 electoral votes; the least populous states, such as North Dakota, each get three. Needed to win the presidency: 270.

With Sen. John Kerry now the Democrats' presumptive nominee, it’s time to get out the map and the Excel spreadsheet to try to assess the 2004 electoral vote.

Democratic bastions
The Democratic bastions are the Northeast, the Pacific Coast states, and two Midwestern states, Illinois and Michigan. The Republican strongholds are the South, the Rocky Mountain states, and the Great Plains states.

The Republicans start with an advantage. Due to population shifts among the states and reapportionment, the states which Bush carried in 2000 now have seven more electoral votes than they did four years ago. In 2000, Bush won 271 electoral votes; this year, with the same states he’d have 278.

Traditionally, Democratic Northeastern states such as New York have had slower population growth than other states and thus have lost electoral votes, while Republican states such as Georgia and Texas have gained population and electoral clout.

A number of intriguing scenarios are feasible on Nov. 2:

  • The Democrat wins — even while carrying no Southern states.

It would be unprecedented if the Democratic candidate won the presidency without carrying any Southern states, but just because it hasn’t ever been done doesn't mean it can't be done.

Imagine on the night of Nov. 2 Kerry carrying all the states Gore won in 2000, for a total of 259 electoral votes. Then assume the Democrats add Nevada (five electoral votes) and Arizona (10 electoral votes). The Democrats would have 275 and Bush would need to start packing.

Four years ago, Gore lost Arizona by six percentage points. He missed in Nevada by 3.5 percentage points.

To counter the Republican Southern strategy, a Democratic Southwestern strategy makes some sense, which is why some pundits put New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson high on the Democrats’ vice presidential list.

  • Bush wins — without Ohio.

No Republican has ever been elected president without carrying Ohio. But, again, historical patterns are not immutable laws of nature.

If Ohio’s 20 electoral votes went to the Democrats, they could be offset by the combined 14 of Iowa and Oregon, plus the seven Bush would gain from reapportionment (again assuming he won all of his 2000 states with the exception of Ohio). Bush would end up with 272 electoral votes.

  • The longest of long shots: Is it possible that Bush could win a second term even if he lost both Ohio and Florida? Theoretically, yes, but in all likelihood, no.

He’d have to make up for 47 electoral votes – which would require him getting all of following marginal states that he narrowly lost in 2000: Oregon, New Mexico, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. If he did that, he’d have exactly the number needed: 270.

  • The ultimate deadlock: If neither candidate wins 270 votes, then the election is thrown into the House of Representatives, as happened in 1824.

Could it happen this year? A deadlock scenario isn't far-fetched: All one needs to do is take the 2000 map, then assume the Democrats win two states they narrowly lost in 2000: Nevada and New Hampshire. Final vote: Bush 269, Kerry 269.

Is Ohio really the key?
Some pundits say Ohio is the most crucial state for Kerry to win. They argue that Ohio’s 6 percent unemployment rate makes it a good prospect for the Democratic nominee. That may be true.

But in the past four presidential elections, the Democratic nominee has won an average of only 44 percent of the vote in Ohio.

Partly this was due to a strong showing in the state in 1992 by Ross Perot, but the 44 percent voting history together with the fact that Ohio has a Republican governor, two Republican senators and a House delegation with a two-to-one Republican tilt, one might question how good a target Ohio is for the Democrats.

Although Florida’s disputed election got almost all the news media attention in the days following the 2000 election, New Mexico was even closer than Florida. Bush carried Florida by 537, while Gore eked out a win in New Mexico by 366 votes out of nearly 600,000 votes cast.

New Mexico and three other states that Gore barely won must rank high on battleground list:

  • Oregon: Gore won this state but 6,765 votes, less than one-half of 1 percent of the total vote.
  • Wisconsin: Bush fell short by 5,708, two-tenths of 1 percent.
  • Iowa: Bush actually won Iowa, when one considers the votes that were cast on Election Day, but when the absentee ballots were counted, Gore had won by only 4,144, three-tenths of 1 percent. 

And don't forget Louisiana. From the 1996 election to the 2000 election, the Pelican State had second biggest fall-off for the Democrats: 7 percentage points.

But Louisiana just elected a Democratic governor and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu won re-election in 2002 in one of the hardest fought campaigns in the nation.

The states that will be most fiercely fought over will come into clearer focus in September as state polling becomes intensive.

No frivolous trips
But for now amid the uncertainty, one thing seems indisputable: Bush will not be able to indulge in a frivolous homestretch visit to a state he has no chance of winning.

Although it is generally forgotten today, one week before the 2000 election, Bush’s strategists sent him on what now seems a whimsical two-day tour of California.

While California Republican strategists didn’t think Bush could win the state, they did think he’d establish a Republican “floor” of 45 percent or so and help GOP congressional candidates. The gambit failed: Bush got only 41 percent and congressional candidates such as Steve Kuykendall went down to defeat.

"We're going to carry Tennessee. We're going to carry Wisconsin. We're going to carry Iowa. We're going to carry Arkansas," Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove rashly predicted two days before the 2000 election. Rove was half right: Bush carried Tennessee and Arkansas; he lost Iowa and Wisconsin.

And every minute Bush spent in California on that Monday and Tuesday was a minute he might have spent in Iowa, Oregon or Wisconsin.

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