STRATHAM, NEW HAMPSHIRE -- To hear President George W. Bush tell it at a recent campaign stop, there was no place on earth he'd rather have been than right where he was: in the middle of Stella and Douglas Scamman's farm, soaking in the affection of 3,500 or so cheering supporters. "Thank y'all for coming," he said, all tie-less informality. He gripped the podium, the sleeves of his light-blue shirt rolled up, and leaned forward slightly. "Listen," he said, "there is no better way to spend a Friday afternoon than at a picnic in New Hampshire."
Bush's warm feelings toward the Granite State were understandable. Though he lost the 2000 Republican primary here to Arizona senator John McCain, he came back that fall to edge out Al Gore in the general election. New Hampshire may have only four electoral votes, but if Gore had won them, he'd have become president. Which is why New Hampshire -- which used to slip back into obscurity following its snow-and-ice-bound, first-in-the-nation primary -- is likely to be a favored stop for both the Bush-Cheney and Kerry-Edwards campaigns right through Election Day.
So forget everything you think you know about the 2004 presidential campaign. Yes, Sen. John Kerry and Bush have been locked in a virtual dead heat for months. Yes, the blue-red divide appears to be as even as it was four years ago. But the Kerry-Bush race isn't really a national campaign; it only looks that way on the surface. The key to the 2004 race is the handful of swing states -- perhaps as few as 10 -- where the candidates are so close that it could go either way. And here, Kerry is in surprisingly good shape. According to the most recent state-by-state polls available, compiled by the Web site Electoral-Vote.com, the senator is currently leading Bush in electoral votes by a margin of 307 to 231 -- 37 more than the 270 he needs to win.
Then again, you'd be wise not to bet next week's paycheck on a Kerry victory. By their very definition, swing states are those where the election is closest. In Missouri and Wisconsin, for instance, Kerry leads by just one point -- well within the margin of error. What's important to keep in mind is not who's leading at any given moment, but how the race will actually be fought. And where the candidates will spend most of their time.
If you live in a solidly Republican state, such as Texas, Utah or Georgia, or a solidly Democratic state, such as New York, California or Massachusetts, you're no more likely to see George W. Bush or John Kerry landing on the tarmac of your local airport than you are to see a total eclipse of the sun. But if you live in a state that could go either way, such as New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa or Florida, prepare to be bombarded by television ads, door-knocking canvassers and Secret Service roadblocks, as the campaigns devote all their resources to identifying their supporters and getting them to the polls.
This year, you won't even be able to see Bruce Springsteen unless you're from a swing state. The liberal group MoveOn.org has announced that Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam and others are participating in a series of Vote for Change concerts to benefit America Coming Together, a Democratic-leaning political-action committee organizing get-out-the-vote efforts in 17 swing states. Naturally, the concerts are all being held in those states.
For the campaigns themselves, this narrow focus is the best way to allocate scarce resources. Despite the massive fundraising they have done -- some $200 million for Bush, and nearly as much for Kerry -- each side will have just $75 million in public money to spend this fall. That may sound like a lot, but it goes only so far. "In the context of a campaign like this, it's not huge, and you really do have to make decisions about where you're going to spend your money," says a Democrat who's familiar with the thinking of the Kerry campaign, but who asked not to be identified.
Such narrowcasting has become so prevalent that in 2000 -- for the first time in the television era -- neither major-party candidate bought any political advertising on national television, according to Northeastern University political scientist William Mayer, editor of the book The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2004. Instead, the campaigns opted to buy all their time on local stations in swing states. Mayer expects Bush and Kerry to do the same -- especially if the contest remains as close as it is at the moment.
"If the election is one or two points, then I think you sort of say, well, let's concentrate on these handful of states where a little bit of campaigning might make a difference," Mayer says. What could change that dynamic, he adds, is if one of the candidates falls substantially behind, which would force him to gamble on a more national strategy. "If you're down five or 10, then you say, well, you know, let's go for broke a little more and see if we can catch fire somewhere," Mayer says.
But with the two major parties stuck in a dead heat for the past four years, there would appear to be little chance of that happening.
NOT ALL SWING STATES are created equal. In 2000, there were 21 states where Bush received between 45 percent and 55 percent of the vote. But that list includes some places that are exceedingly unlikely to move into the Democratic column, such as Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina. Electoral-Vote.com, which relies on the most recent state-by-state poll results, reports that there are currently 22 states where Kerry and Bush are separated by nine points or less. Perhaps a smarter way of looking at this, though, is by considering the 12 states where the lead is four points or less, which Electoral-Vote.com classifies as either "Barely Kerry" (West Virginia, Oregon, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri and Maine) or "Barely Bush" (Virginia, Arizona, Tennessee, Arkansas and Nevada). And by the way, Bush's trip to Stratham notwithstanding, Kerry currently holds a seven-point lead in the Granite State.
Pollsters this year have consistently found that, to an unusual degree, voters have already made up their minds. This leads Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, to say that there really may be fewer than 10 true swing states -- much fewer if the race remains tight. Kerry, Sabato says, could pick up New Hampshire and West Virginia, with Florida, Ohio and Nevada following close behind. If Kerry wins big, he could take Arkansas as well. As for Gore states that Bush might carry, Sabato says he can realistically identify only two -- Wisconsin and Oregon -- although Iowa, Minnesota and New Mexico might also slide red if there is an unexpectedly large Bush victory.
"Truth be told, unless it's a landslide, the map is going to look much like it did in 2000," says Sabato. "I've studied votes all my life, and voting is like inertia. Objects in motion tend to remain in motion, objects at rest tend to stay at rest."
The differences among the swing states argue against any great movement to one side or the other. They are located in all sections of the country. They range from virtually all white (Maine and New Hampshire) to ethnically diverse (Florida and New Mexico). They are affluent, they are poor, and they are in the middle. To be sure, Kerry, as the challenger, may be able to base at least some of his appeal on issues of local concern. According to U.S. Census data, the swing states of West Virginia, Arkansas, New Mexico and Tennessee are among the bottom 10 in terms of median income, with Maine not far behind. The swing states of Oregon, South Carolina, Michigan, Washington and Ohio have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. That gives Kerry nine swing states where a critique of Bush's economic policies might play better than in the country as a whole.
The Bush campaign is also reportedly counting on the support of military families, whose backing was crucial to the Republicans in 2000. Kerry is clearly attempting to cut into that appeal, not just on the basis of his own well-publicized military service, but on rising worries about the war in Iraq. Here, too, Kerry has some targets of opportunity. According to the Military Family Resource Center, the swing states of Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Washington, South Carolina and Colorado have among the country's highest populations of active military personnel and family members. As in 2000, Florida is likely to be unusually close. With more than 200,000 military voters in that state, any change in sentiment against the commander-in-chief could prove decisive.
PERHAPS THE MOST FRUSTRATING thing about the Bush-Gore contest four years ago was not just that the candidates focused on a small number of states, but that they targeted the most small-minded of voters as well: those disengaged independents who just couldn't make up their minds. Thus, Gore talked ceaselessly about a "lockbox" for Social Security and a prescription-drug benefit for the elderly. Bush promoted himself as a "compassionate conservative," which many voters interpreted as being just like Bill Clinton, only with lower taxes and less oral sex.
Fortunately, there doesn't seem to be any danger of that happening in 2004. Kerry and Bush are talking about the biggest of issues -- war and peace, terrorism and the economy -- with a nod to public education, the environment, stem-cell research, same-sex marriage and prospective appointments to the Supreme Court. They may be spending all their time in the swing states, but they're addressing national and international issues. "I think this election feels more important compared with the last three elections," Christian Science Monitor White House reporter Linda Feldmann said at a recent forum on presidential politics. "In this election it seems that everything is on the table."
Certainly, the campaigns will try to persuade undecided voters. But they're putting more energy into identifying their potential supporters in swing states. Take, for instance, Americans Coming Together (ACT), the beneficiary of Bruce Springsteen's largesse. At a news conference during the Democratic National Convention, the organization's top officers laid out ambitious plans to send canvassers into 15 to 17 swing states this fall, going so far as to arm door-knockers with Palm organizers that can play short videos on various issues. ACT's president, Ellen Malcolm, said the organization has already raised $80 million of its $125 million goal, and has signed up 80,000 members. Steve Rosenthal, ACT's chief executive officer, said his group has 541 people working full-time and 1,500 canvassers, mainly volunteers, out every night. When ACT's chief-of-staff, former top Clinton aide Harold Ickes, was asked about federal campaign-finance laws that prevent so-called 527s (named after a provision in the tax code) such as ACT from doing any direct politicking, he fairly sneered: "You cannot expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate .... These are words of art in our trade. We can say Kerry is great on this and Bush is terrible on that."
Or consider the Swing State Project. According to Riessen Kinghorne, a board member of the Massachusetts liberal organization Citizens for Participation in Political Action who's helping to run the project, about 900 people have already signed up over the Internet (www.swingstateproject.org) to work on phone banks and knock on doors in hopes of turning out Kerry voters in November. Kinghorne says that the effort -- which will begin in New Hampshire later this month -- is aimed at least in part at persuading progressives to back Kerry over Ralph Nader. "Although we certainly support a lot of the things that Nader stands for, we need to vote for Kerry," he says. (In 2000, Nader's vote totals in New Hampshire and Florida were greater than Bush's margin of victory, leading Gore supporters to contend that Nader cost them the election.)
The centrist New Democrat Network is trying a different tack, targeting Hispanic voters in four swing states: Arizona, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada. It's a promising approach. According to an analysis by Robert David Sullivan, of the nonpartisan magazine CommonWealth, capitalizing on population growth in regions where most Latinos live "presents the greatest potential for the Democrats to pick up electoral votes in 2004." (Sullivan's "Beyond Red and Blue: The New Map of American Politics" can be found online at www.massinc.org.)
Nor are the Republicans planning to stay put. In particular, the party is behind a major effort to identify evangelical Christian voters and get them out to the polls. Karl Rove, Bush's political guru, has said that he estimates some three million evangelicals stayed home in 2000, costing Bush the decisive victory he thought was in his grasp. This time, the party is using tools such as anti-gay-marriage petition drives to identify social conservatives. "We're going to find every Bush voter, we're going to call them, we're going to write them, we're going to knock on their doors, and when the day comes, we're going to physically take them to the polls," political strategist Ralph Reed, a former associate of the Reverend Pat Robertson's, was recently quoted as saying in The New York Times.
Such intensive efforts, focused entirely on the swing states, may leave voters wondering where they can take refuge -- especially in places like Davenport, Iowa, where Kerry and Bush nearly bumped into each other. Their recent events required so much security that they provided cover for three bank robberies. "It never ends here in Iowa," says Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen. "You've got candidate visits all the time. Your mailbox is full of stuff, both as a journalist and a voter. The real winners of all this are the television stations in the battleground states."
Or Ohio, which recently marked Bush's 21st presidential visit. "Our public-affairs staff has been extremely busy, because every time you turn around these guys are coming through the state," says Mary Beth Lane, a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch.
Or Missouri, where Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a nonprofit organization based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, senses little payoff for the candidates' frequent appearances. "It sure seems like the candidates like to visit," Houston says. "I don't sense a lot of changing of minds."
HERE'S A NIGHTMARE SCENARIO for you. In 2000, Bush won 271 Electoral College votes, and thus the presidency, despite losing the popular election by some 500,000 votes. Because of population gains in the heavily red areas of the South and West, all Bush has to do is hold onto the states he won the last time around, and he'll have 278 votes. This could happen even if Kerry runs up a greater popular-vote victory than Gore did four years ago, which he could do by capturing huge margins in ultra-blue states such as California and New York.
Not that that's likely to happen. Joe Lenski, executive vice-president of Edison Media Research, which has done exit-polling for the Associated Press and the television networks (the company has also done market research for the Phoenix Media/Communications Group), says such a split-decision scenario is almost always checked by reality. "Those are little trends," Lenski says of the population shifts, "but when it comes to the actual operation of the Electoral College, one big, close state will determine the election." In other words, if Florida, with its 27 electoral votes, and/or Ohio, with its 20, switches from red to blue this November, nothing else is going to matter very much.
Back in Stratham, Bush was doing his best to make sure that New Hampshire, at least, stays solidly in the Republican camp. After paying tribute to a raft of local Republican officials, Bush launched into a 45-minute stump speech, working from notes and from memory. "I'm runnin' because I know how to take a strong economy and make it stronger," he said, a line that no doubt plays better in a state with a 3.9 percent unemployment rate than it might in, say, Michigan (6.5 percent). He also offered a new rationalization for the war in Iraq: "A lesson of September 11th is that we must take threats seriously before they fully materialize." And in this most libertarian of states, he spoke in veiled, almost coded language to express his opposition to same-sex marriage: "We stand for institutions like marriage and family, which are the foundation of our society."
He closed, as he generally does, with an ode to 9/11, recalling his visit to Ground Zero several days after the terrorist attacks. "I remember a guy grabbing me by the arm .... He looked at me with bloodshot eyes and said, Don't let me down,'" Bush said, before ending, "I will do whatever it takes."
"Four more years! Four more years!" came the response.
After that, it was off to Kennebunkport -- on the coast of the great swing state of Maine -- for his nephew's wedding.
"I think it's great that New Hampshire is going to get a whole lot of attention," said D.J. Bettencourt, a 20-year-old Republican activist from Salem. State Representative Richard Drisko, 76, a Hollis Republican, praised Bush's grasp of Granite State trivia: "It seemed to me that he had more familiarity with New Hampshire than the times he was here before."
This is what the next three months are going to be like for John Kerry and George W. Bush: a constant, steady slog through a handful of targeted states, almost like a primary season with mosquitoes instead of snow, a national campaign waged as a series of local campaigns. That well-worn cliche -- retail politics -- is back for another go-round.
Sure, there will be mega-events that could tilt the election one way or the other. Bush could somehow blow it at the Republican National Convention later this month. Kerry could come off as a pompous bore in the debates. A terrorist attack could shuffle the deck. The negative ads could finally take a toll on one candidate or the other (or both). But in a country that, for the most part, has already made up its mind, it's likely that the little things are going to be what matters in the end.