By Richard S. Dunham If the Presidential election were held today, George W. Bush would win a modest but comfortable victory in the popular vote over Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry, according to most recent polls. But it would be a decisive victory in the Electoral College. Just take a look at BusinessWeek Online's electoral map (which we'll be updating for the duration of the campaign).
New Hampshire 4
New Jersey 15
New Mexico 5
New York 31
North Carolina 15
North Dakota 3
Rhode Island 4
South Carolina 8
South Dakota 3
West Virginia 5
With the first of three nationally televised Presidential debates set for the evening of Sept. 30, Bush is clearly ahead in 30 states with 284 electoral votes, 14 more than the 270 necessary to capture the White House. Kerry leads in 13 states and the District of Columbia, which account for 196 electoral votes. Seven other states with 58 electoral votes are toss-ups.
But there are warning signs for the President. Kerry has a deeper base of Electoral College support, mainly due to his lock on three of the largest states: California, New York, and Illinois. Kerry strongly leads Bush in states with 164 votes, while the incumbent has a wide lead in states with 152.
AD PULLOUTS. So why are things looking rosy for the President? Because Kerry leads in just 2 of the 20 battleground states, compared to 11 for Bush. (The remainder are too close to call.) That gives the Republican a commanding 132 to 32 electoral-vote lead in the "leaning" states.
In the short run, things could get worse for Kerry before they get better -- if they ever get better. His campaign has made a decision to cease advertising in Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia -- increasing the risk that those states could slip into the "strong Bush" camp.
More problematic, Kerry has lost the lead in the "Big Three" states that will decide the election, if it's close. Bush now has a statistically significant lead in Ohio and a narrow edge in Florida, while Kerry is struggling to hold his lead in Pennsylvania.
THE DEBATE FACTOR. It's clear that Kerry is playing defense on the Electoral College gridiron. Of the seven current toss-up states, six went to Democrat Al Gore in 2000. Only New Hampshire, with a mere four electoral votes, went to the Republicans four years ago. And Kerry, a Massachusetts neighbor, was widely expected to prevail in the Granite State. His inability to close the deal so close to home reflects more widespread problems.
Of course, things could change if Kerry performs well in the debates or the situation continues to worsen in Iraq (see BW Online, 9/29/04, "Four Ways the Election Can Go"). If Kerry tightens the national contest (the last 10 nationwide polls show Bush with an average lead of five points), he likely would sweep the toss-up states and their 58 electoral votes. If he picks up at least three points nationally, he would have a decent shot at Florida, Nevada, and perhaps West Virginia or Wisconsin. But that's a lot of "ifs."
For Kerry, the message is clear: Perform well in the debates that start tonight. Or else. Dunham is Washington Outlook editor for BusinessWeek