President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry, go into the final 48 hours of the 2004 presidential campaign within easy reach of an electoral majority, but neither has a clear advantage in the remaining handful of tossup states.
This year's election is a virtual rerun of the 2000 race, with many of the same states in the too-close-to-call category. But four years ago, Bush's route to an electoral majority was clearer than Al Gore's, while this year his path appears no easier than Kerry's, given the states still in play.
Bush has solid leads in 23 states with 197 electoral votes and is favored in four more, which could bring him to 227. Kerry is equally solid in 13 states with 178 electoral votes and is favored in five states, which would bring him to 232. It takes 270 electoral votes to win.
Six states — Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and New Mexico — with 79 electoral votes could determine the winner. All are regarded as tossups by neutral observers and the two campaigns.
Democratic hopes of overturning the Republicans' shaky 51-vote majority in the Senate are unlikely to be realized. Democratic candidates would have to win all four tossup races and defeat one favored Republican to emerge with 50 seats and a tie that John Edwards could break if he and Kerry win. Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D) is fighting for his political life in South Dakota against former representative John Thune (R), a race that both sides expect to be won or lost by fewer than 2,000 votes.
In the House, few analysts see Republicans losing more than three seats net from their 24-seat majority or adding more than that number. But two prominent Republicans — Christopher Shays of Connecticut, co-sponsor of campaign finance legislation, and Philip M. Crane of Illinois, a 35-year veteran, are in jeopardy.
The state-by-state analysis is based on reporting by Washington Post staff members traveling with the four presidential and vice presidential candidates and on assignment in nine states, along with private assessments from top Kerry and Bush strategists and interviews with dozens of other political players in Washington and around the country.
Wild card: voter interest
What makes this presidential election so difficult to call is the intensity of voter interest, reflected in swollen registration totals and long lines for early voting, combined with the most aggressive voter-mobilization efforts either party and its allies have ever mounted. Democrats in particular believe that their ground game may be decisive in the closest remaining states.
The other unknown is the potential impact of Osama bin Laden's Friday videotape message, which abruptly shifted headlines away from Iraq to terrorism and echoes of Sept. 11, 2001. Bush's highest ratings come for his leadership against the terrorists, but there was no discernible shift to the president in polls taken during the first hours after the video aired.
Some Democrats fear that Bush may benefit from bin Laden's intervention, but until the tape appeared, Republicans complained that Bush was fighting against a tide of negative news developments — brutal killings in Iraq, shortages of flu vaccine, investigations of Vice President Cheney's former employer, Halliburton, an impasse in Congress over reform of intelligence agencies and — for most of the past week, headlines suggesting the administration had been negligent in allowing tons of Saddam Hussein's lethal weapons to possibly fall into dangerous hands.
The Washington Post's latest tracking poll shows a deadlocked electorate, with Bush at 49 percent, Kerry at 48 percent and independent Ralph Nader at 1 percent, among likely voters. Most other polls show the race equally close, although a Newsweek poll put Bush up 50 to 44 percent among likely voters. A general movement toward one or the other candidate in the final hours could significantly alter the electoral map balance.
The candidates tried to tune their speeches to the shifting headlines as they campaigned in what they know to be the battleground states. From last winter on, both Bush and Kerry have targeted Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, believing that whoever wins two of them would likely be elected.
Mixed gains for both candidates
Despite more than 40 Bush visits, Pennsylvania has now tilted toward Kerry, and Republicans are fighting desperately to pump the vote in their central and southwestern areas of strength enough to make up for the Democratic margins in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Some public polls show the race tied, but insiders are skeptical Bush can prevail.
Other states that have moved from the pre-convention tossup category toward Kerry are Washington, Oregon, Maine and Michigan. Hawaii, once considered a Democratic certainty, has become a battleground in which Kerry is narrowly favored.
Meantime, Bush has gained the advantage in Colorado, Missouri, Nevada and West Virginia, all considered battlegrounds at one time.
But Florida and Ohio remain tossups. Four years ago, Bush did not have to worry about Ohio. Gore had folded his campaign in the state to concentrate on Florida, and it was something of a shock when Bush carried Ohio by only three points.
Still, with severe losses of industrial jobs the past four years, Republicans knew early it would not be easy this time. Although Ohio has one of the weakest Democratic Parties in the country, America Coming Together and other independent pro-Kerry groups have moved in massive numbers of organizers. Republicans have ramped up a party that controls all major offices to meet the challenge. Kerry needs a sizable margin out of the Cleveland-Akron-Youngstown area to offset Bush's support in the southern parts of the state bordering the Ohio River, where his social issue stands are much more popular.
In Florida, preparations for this election — and tensions over its outcome — have been building ever since the disputed 537-vote Bush margin gave him the presidency. Republicans retain control of the election machinery, run by an appointee of Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother. But Democrats have amassed an army of lawyers to challenge any irregularities. Both sides have prodded supporters to take advantage of the state's new early voting law, and more than a million-and-a-half Floridians have turned in their ballots already. Republicans say they have growing confidence that Bush will carry the state Tuesday, but Democrats have taken heart from early vote patterns in some counties and are far from conceding.
Bush's most direct path to reelection is simply to capture those two big states he won last time. That could bring his total to 274 electoral votes. If Kerry wins them both, he will be at 279.
Motor City showdown
Another option for Bush would be to steal Michigan from Kerry. The state's economic problems, second only to Ohio's, gave Kerry the early advantage. His managers assumed the state was secure and devoted little time and money to it, an omission that the Bush side noted and moved quickly to exploit. With a revived party organization and hundreds of local "victory headquarters," they have forced Kerry to up his investment in the last 10 days. Kerry plans a stop on Monday hoping that a big Detroit vote will give Democrats the edge.
But if Michigan stays Democratic and Bush and Kerry split Florida and Ohio, then the other tossup states become decisive, particularly three in the upper Midwest: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. The winner of two of those three likely will win the White House.
All three went for Gore, but the Massachusetts senator has struggled to make a personal connection with midwestern voters, typified by his reference to "Lambert Field" rather than Lambeau Field, home to the Green Bay Packers. All three states are now open to Bush.
The easiest for Kerry to win may be Minnesota, a state with a proud Democratic tradition but that has been trending Republican. Bush came close in Minnesota four years ago and may once again fall just short.
Wisconsin has seesawed between the two candidates throughout the fall, with Democrats worried about black turnout in Milwaukee and Bush trying to push up his numbers in the Fox River Valley south of Green Bay. Like Minnesota, Wisconsin allows voters to register on Election Day, adding an unpredictable element.
Bush's best bet to pick off a Democratic state may be in Iowa, even though it is the state that launched Kerry toward the nomination last winter. But Iowa remains too close to call this weekend. Democrats won the state four years ago on Election Day with their voter turnout operation and say they may have to do so again this year.
There is only one competitive state in New England: New Hampshire. Four years ago, after Republicans captured the attention of Granite State independent voters with their presidential primary between Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain, Bush managed to eke out a 7,000 vote victory in the general election. This time Democrats won the headlines with their primary contest, and Kerry is favored to win back the state on Tuesday.
There is one asterisk in New England, in Maine. Kerry should win the statewide vote easily, but Maine divides its electoral votes in part by congressional district, and Bush is fighting to win one vote from the northern, mostly rural 2nd District.
At one point in the campaign, four Rocky Mountain states were on the target list of the two campaigns, but in the closing weeks, only two — New Mexico and Nevada — see real competition. Nevada leans to Bush, despite his support for making Yucca Mountain the nation's nuclear waste repository. New Mexico, which went for Gore with one of the smallest margins in the country, remains a tossup, with the closing trend toward Bush.
If New Mexico turns into another dead heat, Tuesday could turn into another long night of counting, but that could be eclipsed if Hawaii remains as competitive as it has appeared in the last week. Newspaper polls in the once-staunchly Democratic state showed Bush running even with Kerry, prompting both campaigns to buy advertising and late visits by Cheney and Gore.
In the Senate, Daschle vs. Thune remains the premier contest, but two other incumbents, both Republicans, are in trouble: Jim Bunning of Kentucky and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The parties expect to trade open seats in Illinois and Georgia. Republicans have Democrats on the defensive in open seat races in Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina. Democrats have the GOP fighting to hold open seats in Colorado and Oklahoma.
Democratic House hopes slim
With so few House races truly competitive, Democrats' hopes of regaining the majority they lost a decade ago seem virtually nil. The key to Republicans' likelihood of maintaining and possibly expanding their majority lies in Texas. Thanks to aggressive redistricting by the state's GOP-controlled legislature, five House Democrats are imperiled, with only one given a 50-50 chance of survival. Republicans say Texas is their firewall to protect the party from possible losses in Connecticut and a handful of other states.
Republicans control 229 of the House's 435 seats (counting vacancies in two GOP-leaning districts). Democrats have 205 seats and there is one liberal independent. With Republicans poised to gain four seats in Texas, a nationwide net pickup of three seats is quite plausible. Under a best-case Republican scenario, the party could gain six seats. Under a worst-case result, Democrats would pick up four seats net, still leaving them short of a majority. The House assessments are based in part on independent assessments of the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg Political Report.
Only 11 states are electing governors this year. In Indiana, former Office of Management and Budget director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. is threatening to end 16 years of Democratic domination in a race against Gov. Joseph E. Kernan. Republicans are favored to hold on in North Dakota and Vermont and are threatening in Delaware and Missouri. Democrats are confident about West Virginia and North Carolina, hopeful about keeping Washington in their column and believe they have a shot to take over in New Hampshire, Montana and Utah.