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10 keys to the presidential election

Seeking clues to the Nov. 2 outcome,'s Tom Curry looks at 10 keys to the presidential election, from blizzards to Nader voters to senior citizens.
People cast their ballots during early elections in Miami, Florida
Floridians cast their ballots during early voting at the Miami Government Center on Monday.Gary I. Rothstein / Reuters
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Tempting as it is to say that one factor — “outsourcing” — or one demographic group — “office park dads” or Catholic voters — will be the key to the outcome of this presidential election, the reality is more muddled.

If the Bush-Kerry contest turns out to be as close as polls suggest, then it is more likely that several factors will play their part in determining the winner.

With two weeks of campaigning left, here are 10 variables that will affect the election:

1) Public opinion polls and how they are reported
Heading into the final 15 days of campaigning, a new Gallup/CNN/USA Today national survey released Sunday showed Bush with an eight-point lead among likely voters, with 52 percent backing Bush and 44 percent supporting Kerry. (The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 3 points.)

The Gallup finding is generally in line with a Washington Post tracking poll of likely voters released Monday which shows Bush with 50 percent, and Kerry with 47 percent. That poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. On the other hand, a New York Times/CBS News poll found the race tied with each candidate drawing 45 percent and independent Ralph Nader at 2 percent.

Both the Bush campaign and the Kerry campaign have reason to worry about the effect of discouraging poll data on the marginally committed. If even a small fraction of a candidate’s supporters come to the conclusion that he isn’t going to win, they may not bother to vote.

That explains why the anti-Bush group, unleashed an attack against Gallup in September, paying $68,000 to run a full-page ad in The New York Times with the headline: "Gallup-ing to the Right. Why does America's top pollster keep getting it wrong?"

Gallup, naturally, defends its methodology.

2) Events in Iraq
With his speech at New York University on Sept. 20, Kerry decided to make the election above all a referendum on Bush’s decision to go to war.

“Invading Iraq has created a crisis of historic proportions and, if we do not change course, there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight,” Kerry warned.

“Sen. Kerry believes that fighting (Abu Musab al-) Zarqawi and other terrorists in Iraq is a ‘diversion’ from the war on terror,” Bush said Monday as he campaigned in New Jersey. “I believe that fighting and defeating these killers in Iraq is a central commitment in the war on terror.”

Is there is an end in sight in Iraq? Events over the next two weeks may help voters decide that question.

3) Those who are historically most likely to vote
According to the Census Bureau’s study of the 2000 election, “The peak age group for voting participation is 65 to 74 years, where 72 percent of citizens voted in the 2000 election. The lowest voting rate (36 percent) is for 18- to 24-year-old citizens, who were half as likely to vote as people 65 to 74 years.”

The same phenomenon was seen in the 2002 elections: Again, the peak voting group was people aged 65 to 74.

Thus it’s not surprising that both campaigns cater to the hopes and fears of older voters, most of whom receive Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Bush used his debates with Kerry to tout his prescription drug benefit for people on Medicare.

On Monday, the Kerry campaign launched a new ad accusing Bush of having a “January surprise” plan to “privatize” Social Security.

During the 2000 campaign and ever since, the president has supported giving younger workers the option of taking part of their Social Security tax payments and investing it in personal retirement accounts. He has also said he would not support cutting benefits for current retirees and those nearing retirement.

Critics of the private accounts idea ask where the revenues needed to pay current beneficiaries would come from if younger workers were putting some of their tax payments into private accounts.

As it happens, the three states with the highest proportions of elderly people in their populations, Florida, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, also have been hotly contested battlegrounds this year.

4) Those least likely to vote
Democrats are aiming a pitch at those least likely to vote, trying to convince younger Americans that they have a special reason to cast a ballot this year because Bush will persuade Congress to re-institute the military draft, or as Kerry put it, there is “the great potential of the draft” if Bush wins.

Bush opposes re-introduction of the draft and on Oct. 5 the House of Representatives overwhelmingly rejected a Democratic-sponsored bill to reinstitute the draft.

5) Newly registered voters
Until Election Day and probably for a few days afterward,neither the Bush campaign nor Kerry campaign will know how successful it has been in registering new voters and in getting them to the polls.

The anti-Bush coalition America Votes, which includes the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, the League of Conservation Voters and the Voter Fund, has registered 2.5 million new voters.

Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said last week that Democrats have relied heavily on third-party groups to build their new voter cache, while the Republicans have done their own registration drives.

“As you’ve seen all over the country, one of the things that folks are finding is that alleged new registrants are either ineligible or duplicates or already registered,” Mehlman said. “I think there’s a lot of error in their numbers and I can tell you, as someone who pays a lot of attention to this, that our numbers are very solid.”

6) Election Day registrants
One might think that every potential voter who is at all interested in this contest either has voted through early voting, which is allowed in some states such as Colorado and Florida, or is already registered to vote so they can cast their ballot on Election Day.

But there is likely to be some fraction of the eligible and interested population which, for some reason, has not registered.

These people could decide to register and vote on Election Day in the four states that permit same-day registration at the polling place. These states are: Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Of the four, only solidly Republican Wyoming is not considered a toss-up state.

Even a small number of Election Day registrants may tip the balance.

7) 'Lieberman Democrats'
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., fell far short in his quest for the Democratic nomination. In last January’s New Hampshire primary he got only 8.5 percent of the vote.

But Lieberman, more than anyone, speaks for Democrats who are more hawkish than Kerry on national security and Iraq and who think Bush was right to topple Saddam Hussein, but Lieberman Democrats are aligned with Kerry’s views on the environment, abortion, Social Security and other issues.

Lieberman appeared in Florida last week and mixed an endorsement of Kerry with praise for Bush.

“We are dealing with a president who's had a record of strong, consistent support for Israel. You can't say otherwise,” Lieberman said at one stop, according to a report in the Palm Beach Post. “And I think John Kerry, to reassure people, has to himself be explicit" about his support for Israel.

8) 'Rockefeller Republicans'
Think this breed of Republican, named after the former New York governor, is an extinct species? Hardly. There’s one self-described Rockefeller Republican serving in Bush’s cabinet: Secretary of State Colin Powell.

These Republicans tend to be middle-of-the-road to liberal on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but comfortable with their party’s pro-business leanings. One quintessentially Rockefeller Republican place: Montgomery County, one of the biggest counties in the crucial state of Pennsylvania. Bush got only 44 percent of the vote in Montgomery County in 2000.

9) Nader voters in tossup states
Nader is on the ballot in 35 states, but some matter more than others.

If one accepts the theory that some Nader voters would vote for Kerry if Nader weren’t on the ballot, then there might be some “lost” Kerry voters who cast ballots for Nader in eight tossup states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Wisconsin.

That’s why the state Democratic parties and Democratic activists in battleground states fought so hard to keep Nader off the ballot.

10) The weather
Let’s end with the mundane, a factor neither Bush nor Kerry strategists can do much about: the weather on Election Day.

As it happens, seven of the most hotly contested states, New Hampshire, Maine, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio and Colorado, have a history of occasional autumn storms that make driving hazardous and possibly deterring Election Day turnout, except by the most indomitable voters.

In Minnesota, for instance, starting on Halloween Day in 1991, a three-day storm brought Duluth 37 inches of snow and Minneapolis 28 inches. Snow, freezing rain and sleet made driving a car a gamble with one’s life.

If such a storm were to hit Minnesota on the night before Election Day, who would be more willing and able to get to the precincts, Kerry voters or Bush voters? And which side has a higher rate of ownership of four-wheel-drive vehicles?