Saturday, October 30, 2004

Crunching the Numbers

I’m officially done watching the polls. It's too close to Election Day. I only ever trust them as general guidelines. They’re good for telling us where things are trending over the long-term, but lousy at making sure predictions. So now I’m going with the big picture. Taking all I know into account, how do I think the election will go?

There’s a neat little electoral vote calculator at the L. A. Times website. I’ve been playing around with it a bit to test a few different scenarios I consider possible on Election Day.

Starting with where I truly believe the states will fall, I come out with an electoral count where Bush wins with 306 electoral votes to Kerry’s 232. I’m probably a little on the pessimistic side in the Northeast, and a little optimistic in the Upper Midwest. But that’s where my gut tells me things will fall.

My super-optimistic, best-case Bush scenario puts the tally at Bush 378, Kerry 160 (even in the best case I can’t see Bush carrying New York, Illinois, California or the smaller truly hardcore Democrat states).

To me the “blowout” scenario in favor of Bush will have some early warning signs. If Bush takes New Hampshire and/or Maine, that’s a small reason to get optimistic. But if he takes New Jersey or Pennsylvania, look out! We’d be headed quickly into blowout territory (I have all of those states going for Kerry in my “most likely” scenario).

My best case scenario for Kerry puts the total at 336 for Kerry, and 220 for Bush.

The Kerry-blowout early warning signs to me would be that he holds all the battlegrounds in the Northeast (including New Hampshire and Maine), and makes a pickup in West Virginia, or especially Virginia. That could foreshadow a very bad night for the Bush backers.

For Kerry to have a chance at winning, he’s counting on Ohio. In fact, if he takes only Ohio and Florida, and the rest of the map remains like my “most likely” scenario above, Kerry has a nice 279 to 259 win. If Bush wins Florida, but Kerry sweeps Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, same thing.

One thing that impresses me is how plausible it is for almost any of the battleground states to become the difference maker.

Another thing that impresses me is how difficult the game becomes for Kerry if Bush holds both Ohio and Florida. In that case, smaller states where Kerry hasn’t spent much time or effort would have to drop into his lap in pretty big numbers.

But let’s move away from the electoral tallies and get into where I think the real difference is. I think the majority of the press, left and right, are fighting the 2000 battle over again in their analysis, not comprehending (or perhaps just not willing to go out on a limb) how different the campaigns are this time around.

Much like in 2002, I think Republican support is being understated in the polls, and some of these “close” battlegrounds in the polls will end up solid Bush wins. I don’t think this is because of some overwhelming late break in the undecideds, or fallout from the cave monkey’s videotape. I think the underestimate is due to a few decades of experience, leading to the expectation of a strong Democratic ground-game, and a patchy to lackluster Republican ground-game. This is the source of the "strong turnout favors Democrats" assumption.

This year I truly believe the Republican ground-game is superior. But even if it was only close to equal, that is something not seen in a presidential election in the professional lives of the pundits speculating about the elections this time around. It was tested in some states in 2002, but on a smaller scale. The result was that several races expected to be tight turned into Republican walks. And the incumbent president’s party defied expectation and precedent by picking up seats in a mid-term election.

This was the gut-feeling I had before I did my interview with the Republican campaign insider a couple of weeks ago. Everything I learned during that interview and subsequently has only reinforced that perspective.

Letting my hopes color my analysis? Possibly. But the first test of the ground-game battle was in the early absentee ballots. Both parties placed a big emphasis on this. The results so far have Bush leading by 15 points. No one predicted that. But the ground game difference I’m talking about would account for it.

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