Electoral College Scenarios and Exit Poll Mysteries

On November 2nd we will begin counting the votes cast in the 2004 presidential election. When we will stop, no one knows.

If the race breaks one way or the other in the next week, we could have a clear winner in the quick-count manner Americans were accustomed to before the Florida fiasco of 2000.

On the other hand, some degree of Election Night uncertainty now seems likely, along with a flurry of legal challenges to the results where the margin is close. Depending on how many electoral votes are disputed, and how many courts get involved, we could be waiting days or weeks to know who wins the Electoral College — much as we did in 2000.

It all depends on how close the vote itself is, and that remains hard to predict. As we enter the final week of the campaign, the polls are all over the place. Some show a small national lead for President Bush, others show him in a dead heat with Democratic challenger John Kerry, the senator from Massachusetts.

Democrats like to point out that Kerry has a small lead in the states considered competitive battlegrounds. These Democrats say any nationwide lead for Bush comes from his exaggerated margins in "red states" — states he won in 2000 and will win easily again this year no matter what else happens.

The Bush camp itself is now conducting its extensive, nightly tracking polls only in the battleground states — concentrating its resources to get the data that matter most. What are these intensive, costly polls telling the candidates? You need only look at their travel schedules to know. The campaign has reduced itself to a handful of states, and the four men on the two tickets make a circuit of these states every few days.

In the East, the big prizes are Ohio and Florida once again. Pennsylvania is just as important and almost as close, but both campaigns privately concede it's probably Kerry's.

In the Midwest, the northern battlegrounds of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin are states Gore won in 2000 and states that Bush would like very much to wrest from Kerry. This is all the more true as Ohio teeters. The combined electoral votes of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin (25) would more than offset the potential loss of Ohio (20) and make the outcome rest once again on Florida.

But there are other states that could still surprise and tilt the balance. Colorado, Nevada and New Hampshire were comparatively close wins for the president in 2000 and he is in effect defending each from a Kerry challenge in 2004.

Kerry has to work hard in these Republican-leaning states because he is trying to win the White House without capturing a single state in the "Old South" (other than Florida). Kerry has literally given up on the rest of the Confederacy, and that is unprecedented for a Democratic presidential candidate. Even Al Gore, who lost every Southern state, tried to win his home state of Tennessee and a few others.

Democrats have been talking about this "non-Southern" strategy all year, trying to convince themselves that — yes — it is possible to win without the Southern and border states that were the party's base for more than a century. Part of this thinking is that states in the Southwest with surging Hispanic populations could offer compensatory opportunities. But as of this moment, New Mexico remains a toss-up, Colorado and Nevada are a steep climb for Kerry and Arizona looks beyond reach.

If you love to do the Electoral College math, you can turn into a game with the electronic electoral map available on the Web site of the Los Angeles Times. It starts you out with the hardcore red and blue states, then shows you the competitive states with their latest polls. Click a state to turn it red or blue, and the counter automatically adds its electoral value to the tally for the incumbent or the challenger.

You can try out all sorts of scenarios for getting to 270, and when you get there for one candidate or the other the site plays "Hail to the Chief." One cautionary note on using results from 2000: Giving Kerry exactly the same states Gore won in 2000 will not give him the same tally in the Electoral College. As a result of population shifts measured by the 2000 census, the states Gore won have seven electoral votes fewer now as a group. Bush's states have seven more.

Election Day may not be the day we learn who the next president will be. But exit polls should at least help to solve two mysteries that have stumped us all this fall:

Mystery No. 1: Did the huge surge in registration, particularly on the Democratic side, result in more actual votes being cast for Kerry? Or did it merely confirm the fact that it's a lot easier to sign a form on a table in the mall than it is to get up off the couch on Election Day?

Mystery No. 2: Who, in the end, were the elusive "likely voters" this year, and what finally enabled them to make up their minds?

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