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The critical states in 2004

By Bruce Walker
web posted March 1, 2004

Very soon the 2004 election will start in earnest. Some things are certain. Republicans, because of the redistricting of congressional districts in Texas, will not only retain control of the House of Representatives, but will have more seats.

Democrats need a net gain of two seats to control the Senate, and there are only three Republican seats which Democrats have any hope of winning: Illinois, Alaska and Oklahoma. Illinois is very likely to go Democrat, but Alaska and Oklahoma are conservative states which President George W. Bush will carry easily. Democrats will be hard pressed to win both these seats.

Republicans have the opportunity to pick up seats in five southern states - North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana - and will give Tom Daschle a tough fight in South Dakota. Washington and Nevada could each shape up into tough fights for incumbent Democrats as well.

That understates the position of Republicans. While Democrats will almost certainly gain a seat in Illinois, Republicans will also certainly gain seats in Georgia (recall Zell Miller will be campaigning for President Bush) and South Carolina (which Fritz Hollings had a tough time winning as a former governor and incumbent senator.)

That means there are seven senate races which, absent a landslide either way, will be horse races - Alaska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, North Carolina, Louisiana, Nevada and Washington. Even if Republicans lose all seven of these senate races, the Senate will be split fifty-fifty and Republicans will still control the Senate. It is almost certain that Republicans will gain at least one Senate seat.

It's not going to be a cakewalk Mr. Bush
It's not going to be a cakewalk Mr. Bush

The presidential race is the only real contest in November 2004. If either candidate has a plurality of more than four percent (e.g. 52 per cent to 48 per cent) then the Electoral College victory will be much substantial. If the margin is four percent or less, a few critical states will be in play and these will decide the election.

Pundits love to speculate on big states that may be "put into play" but no big states will be in play in a close election. Republicans may dream of being competitive in Pennsylvania or picking up a surprise victory in California or New York, but in a close election, Democrats will win all three of those states.

Democrats may hope to win Florida or Ohio, but in a close election that too will not happen. Republicans in Florida and in Ohio won big in November 2002, turning Republican states into more strongly Republican states.

The governor, both senators, most congressmen and both houses of the Ohio Legislature are Republican. Moreover, the strength in numbers and in votes cast is lopsided Republican at every level in Ohio. Florida, despite having two Democrat senators, is at least as strongly Republican. Several Republican congressmen in Florida run unopposed.

If President Bush carried the same states that he did in the 2000 Election, he would win with 279 electoral votes, nine more than the number need to win outright and ten more than the number needed for a Republican House of Representatives to reelect the president in a tie. Reelections often closely parallel the first term election. Eisenhower in 1956 carried almost exactly the same states as in 1952. Clinton in 1996 carried pretty much the same states as in 1992.

Democrats will likely win in West Virginia, a state that Bush won in 2000, which would reduce the president's margin to 274 electoral votes. Seven states will be nail-biters in a close election - New Hampshire, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, New Mexico and Oregon.

Five of those seven - New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico and Oregon - were microscopic pluralities in 2000. Gore won four of those five (he lost New Hampshire) and had those four gone for Bush, then Florida would have been irrelevant.

If the Democrat nominee wins all five states of those very close states, as well as West Virginia, then President Bush will still win reelection with 270 electoral votes. That means the Democrat nominee would have to win not only all those extremely close states in the 2000 election, but also hold Minnesota and capture Missouri.

The Democrat nominee does not have to win all seven of seven. He could lose New Hampshire, if he everything else fell into place, but that seems like a tall order in a close election.

In November 2002, Republicans gained control of both houses of the Missouri Legislature and defeated Senator Carnahan. In November 2004, Democrats will be saddled with a very unpopular incumbent governor running for reelection.

In November 2002, Republicans grew dramatically stronger in Minnesota, capturing the governorship and a Senate seat, as well as increasing their strength in both houses of the Minnesota Legislature.

The November 2002 elections did not provide Republicans with big victories in those four states which Gore carried by paper thin margins - Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico and Oregon - but Democrats did not make big gains either. All four look to be very much in play.

Can the Democrat nominee win the six out of six that he must win? Almost certainly no. The issues which will motivate voters to support the Democrat nominee in states like Missouri and Minnesota, like protectionism, will cost the Democrat votes in New Mexico and Oregon.

The social issues which may help the Democrat nominee in New Mexico and Oregon will cost the Democrat votes in Iowa and Missouri. Issues like gay marriage will compel the Democrat nominee to lose votes in two of those four states, as his position helps bolster support in the other two states. The problem is, the Democrat must carry all four states.

The farm vote is significant in all of these states except New Mexico, and yet those issues which appeal to the farm vote tend to alienate environmental voters and trade union voters opposed to free trade. Ralph Nader can also peel off votes from any Democrat who seems soft on Green issues.

Does this mean that President Bush will be reelected? No. If Kerry or another Democrat has fifty-three percent or more of the popular vote, then he will win easily. If President Bush wins much more than fifty-one percent of the popular vote, then he will win easily. But in a genuinely close election, the critical states will almost certainly not break completely for the Democrat, and that means the reelection of President Bush.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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