The Red and the Blue

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From the Publisher/Arnold G. York

When did we become a country so totally split down the middle that there is almost no middle anymore? Almost everyone is either a Red or a Blue in either a Red state or a Blue state. There is hardly anyone left to be persuaded.

In order to figure out what’s going on in the presidential race, you have to look at the numbers. Now I know that some of you hate numbers. You were traumatized in the seventh or eight grades and just never recovered. If it’s really that bad, I’d suggest you skip this column and jump to the Letters to the Editor.

If you decide to stay, first, take a look at the chart on this page that we’ve reprinted from our Sacramento newsletter Political Pulse. It’s a summary of what are called the battleground states, that is, the states the pros think are still up for grabs. Typically, the pollsters are pretty close because, truthfully, the best proof of what people will do in the future is what they did in the past. And they run all the old numbers through their computers constantly. They’re also out there almost daily now doing tracking polls and all sorts of sophisticated subgroup analysis, and feeding that information back to the campaigns so they can vary their messages and where it goes as the body politic shifts.

First, a word about polls. Polls are a snapshot of a moment in time. Sometimes, typically in the last few days before an election, the poll results may shift. But as far as I can see, nothing like that has happened yet and there are still two-plus months and several hundred million dollars in media between now and election day.

The chart is where we stand right now, so let’s see what we can glean from the numbers.

1. There are 52 states in the union, but only 21 states haven’t yet made up their minds. The other 31 states are places where the underdog doesn’t have much chance of catching up in the presidential race. In California, for example, Kerry has a substantial lead over Bush and unless something surprising happens, Bush is not going to spend much money or campaign time in California. He can’t afford to. He has to go where the game is close and media or appearances might swing that state into his column.

2. There are 21 states the pollsters agree are up for grabs; in 17 of those states, however, it’s so close that it’s within the poll’s margin of error. To put it another way, in 17 states it’s too close to call.

3. We know a lot of things about those 21 states except where they’re going to end up on Election Day. For example, in the presidential election of 2000, of those 21 states, 12 went for George W. Bush and 9 went for Al Gore.

4. We know that in the 17 states that are in a statistical dead heat, there are a total of 180 Electoral College votes. It takes 270 electoral college votes to win; last time Bush won by one vote so you would have to conclude, based on the numbers, that this is anybody’s race.

5. We know that of those closely contested 21 states, Ralph Nader managed to make it onto the ballot in 16. In those 16 states his poll numbers average about 3.29 percent of the voters. My guesstimate is that the Nader vote could be critical in four states-Florida, Nevada, Washington and Wisconsin-which have together a total of 53 Electoral College votes. Could that make a difference? You bet, considering how tight this race has become.

6. We know the battleground states are geographically all over the nation. Maine, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania in the Northeast. West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee in the middle states. North Carolina, Florida and Arkansas in the south. Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin in upper Midwest. Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri in the Midwest. New Mexico in the Southwest. Colorado, Arizona and Nevada in the West. And, lastly, Washington and Oregon in the Northwest. It is remarkably diverse and spread out.

I like to play around with numbers, so I added up all the unsures (which probably means undecided) and that came to 6.6 percent on average for each of the 21 states. To put it another way, 93.4 percent of the people in those states have told the pollsters their minds are already made up. I suspect that never in the history of the presidential races in the United States have we ever had a presidential race this close, with so few undecideds, a little more than two months from Election Day.

Since the numbers dictate campaign strategy, I believe this is what you can expect in the next few months.

Both parties are going to pour their bucks into the battleground states first and foremost, and candidates further down the ticket in the non-battleground states are going to be screaming that they’re being neglected. The answer will be, “yes, you are,” and, “tough.”

The candidates are going to target and keep hitting the critical battleground states again and again. And some states will drop off as they make up their minds, and the candidates will shift their efforts to the undecided states. For example, in Ohio, which was once thought of as a battleground state, Bush seems to have a substantial lead. Ohio may drop off the Democratic radar, if Bush holds his polling leads there.

They’re all going to work like crazy to register new voters and get out the vote. Normally, campaigns don’t mess with these voters because they’re very hard to get out to the polls. But this year they have no choice because there are so few undecideds. I also suspect it’s going to get very nasty, particularly in states like Florida, and I would not be the least bit surprised to see some activist Democratic groups go to the United Nations or the Organization of the American States and ask them to provide us with poll monitors like we were some Banana Republic.

And sadly, most of all, it’s really going to get nasty close to home also. I can see it already. My friends are tiptoeing around the election because people get so angry about it. Frankly, even though I love politics, I’ll be glad when it’s over and we can get back to normalcy.