Tight Presidential Race Getting Tighter

Tightening Race Increases Stakes of Final Debate (Adam Nagourney, NYT) [RSS]

President Bush and Senator John Kerry meet in their final presidential debate on Wednesday night after two encounters that polls suggest weakened Mr. Bush and fortified Mr. Kerry, leaving some Republicans concerned that the final 20 days of the contest would be more competitive than they had expected. Republicans who had been confident of victory before the debates said they were uneasy as Mr. Bush returns to a format – 90 minutes of questions from one moderator – that has seemed to play to the strength of Mr. Kerry, a 20-year senator and former prosecutor. Mr. Kerry burnished his credentials in the first two debates, averting an early collapse that Republicans had sought, and Mr. Bush has lost some or all of the lead he had before their first debate in Florida on Sept. 30, a series of recent polls suggests. Republicans are also concerned that the debate, at 9 p.m. Eastern time in Tempe, Ariz., is the only one devoted to domestic policy, and polls show Mr. Kerry has an edge on many of those issues. “By any objective measure – if Republicans are going to be intellectually honest with ourselves – prior to the first debate, we were pretty comfortable, ” said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster. “It was a chance for the president to lay him out and just lock it. In the past two weeks, that’s been turned on its head.”


Still, some Democrats argued that this contest was comparable to the election of 1980, when former President Jimmy Carter saw his standing plummet after a debate in which Ronald Reagan, who had been belittled by Mr. Carter throughout the fall, was widely viewed as winning simply by exceeding the low expectations Mr. Carter had established for him. Mr. Bush’s aides have resisted that historical parallel, saying a more apt comparison was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s re-election campaigns in World War II.


In a sign that the race is moving into its final phase, the campaigns have cut down the number of states where they are placing advertisements, a generally reliable way of measuring what states each side views as in play. The University of Wisconsin Advertising Project and Nielsen Monitor Plus, which monitors political advertising nationwide, released a joint study on Tuesday showing that the battleground, at least as far as campaign commercials are concerned, had contracted to mainly 10 states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Both campaigns have pulled out of Missouri, a state that Mr. Kerry had once hoped to win back from Mr. Bush but is now widely expected to fall under Mr. Bush’s column on Election Day. Arizona, Louisiana, Oregon, Washington and West Virginia are also among the states that were once considered competitive but are not being heavily emphasized by either campaign. They have, however, increased spending in Colorado, a state Mr. Bush was favored to win but now appears deadlocked, according to the study. Aides to both campaigns said the shape of the final map would probably become clear by the weekend, when polls measure the cumulative effect of the three debates.

A New York Daily News report says that President Bush may be conceding Pennsylvania, long considered (along with Florida and Ohio) to be one of the three key states in the race. Most analysts believe that the eventual winner must take two out of three of these states.

President Bush appears to be conceding some ground in the hard-fought battleground of Pennsylvania, as the 2004 race, which has been fought in only a small number of states, narrows even further. Bush has visited the Keystone State 39 times – more than any other state – but a White House source said he does not plan to return soon and Pennsylvania was not on a list of the President’s top 10 advertising targets last month.

Campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel called talk of Bush’s pulling out of Pennsylvania “a rumor” and stressed that travel planning is day-to-day. “The President has visited the state of Pennsylvania over 30 times and we have tens of thousands of volunteers,” Stanzel said. “Our campaign has a real opportunity to be victorious there on Nov. 2.”

Bush can narrowly afford to lose Pennsylvania’s 21 electoral votes, but Sen. John Kerry almost certainly cannot. Kerry’s staff is pleased with how he is doing in Pennsylvania, but aides expect their candidate will return there to campaign. They also said the campaign will spend heavily for ads in the state. But Kerry will devote more time to Florida, Ohio and Nevada.

A new Quinnipiac poll of Pennsylvania shows Kerry has only a 2-point lead, but the Keystone Poll found Kerry racking up a 7-point advantage in the state after the first debate.

The current RealClear Politics average gives Kerry a 2.5% edge in Pennsylvania, Bush an identical lead in Florida, and Kerry a 2% lead in Ohio. Those numbers are within the margin of error in their individual polls but would appear to be an accurate reflection of where the race is today. Unfolding events, including tonight’s debate and the daily news from Iraq, could move all three of those states. My guess is that Bush takes Florida, Kerry wins Pennyslvania, and Ohio is a jump ball that will go the way of the national head-to-head polls.

The most recent electoral college roundups are quite tight, with a narrow Bush edge showing:

And that’s just before the lawsuits get started. . . .

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. paladin says:

    I’m praying for a landslide for two reasons: 1) the awful specter of the country swarming with lawyers and 2) the death of the Red State/Blue State meme. Can’t come a moment too soon.