Four Scenarios for November

Will Bush's troubles sink him? Can Kerry close the deal? Here are some possible outcomes -- each one well within reason

By Doug Harbrecht

This much seems certain: The 2004 Presidential election outcome will probably be a stunner -- as if 2000 were a boring affair. George W. Bush is clearly in trouble, with his approval ratings dropping in the low- to mid-40s. Consider that the five most recent incumbent Presidents who won re-election never dipped below 50% at any point during the election year, while the three whose ratings did -- Bush's father, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford -- all lost.

And yet, the President's challenger, Democrat John Kerry, can't seem to gain any traction. Despite a string of horrendous news from Iraq for Bush and an uncertain economy, the two main contenders have been running neck and neck for months, with most polls reporting that neither candidate is able to attract the support of more than 47% of the electorate. Indeed, the only Presidential wanna-be with any momentum is independent Ralph Nader, who has been garnering between 5% and 6% with his out-of-Iraq-now rhetoric -- a policy neither Bush nor Kerry will espouse.

So what's going to happen in November? Here are four plausible scenarios:

Al Qaeda Strikes, Bush Wins.

Horrific as the prospect is -- and homeland security officials have already warned of the heightened risk -- any effort by Osama bin Laden & Co., to influence the election with a bombing or attack will likely have the effect of boosting the commander-in-chief's standing. America isn't Spain, or Europe for that matter. While the April bombings in Madrid led to the ouster of a conservative government in favor of a liberal regime eager to extricate Spanish troops from Iraq, Americans traditionally rally around their leaders in times of peril. Expect that to happen if we are attacked again.

Seems Like 1980 All Over Again.

Many political pros see echoes of the Presidential contest 24 years ago, when an unpopular incumbent, widely considered inept and unworthy of the office, nonetheless ran slightly ahead of an untested, still largely unknown rival right up until the final days of the campaign. Then, a last-minute surge gave Ronald Reagan a convincing victory over Jimmy Carter. Americans put aside concerns about Reagan's ideology in favor a clean sweep, also giving Republicans control of the Senate. In a sense, the outcome was more a referendum on Carter's Presidency than a mandate for Reagan's policies. But it's a prospect that Team Bush has to be worried about, as the President's standing with the electorate continues to drop.

Ralph Nader Strikes Again.

So far, the polls don't bear out the citizen activist's assertions that his candidacy appeals as much to restless conservatives as angry liberals (see BW Online, 5/11/04, "Why Ralph Is Running Again"). His support is rising, all right, but mostly among voters who would likely vote Democratic if he weren't around. These are the same voters who were energized by Democrat Howard Dean's insurgent campaign during the primaries (Remember "The Democratic wing of the Democratic party?"). More recently, they stood and cheered at the angry attacks on Bush's Presidency by Al Gore, who won the popular vote in 2000 but lost in the Electoral College.

In a head-to-head matchup, Kerry is beating Bush by 5 percentage points in some polls, but that's without Nader. When Nader is included in the choices, the race reverts to a statistical dead heat between Bush and Kerry. It's a virtual guarantee that Kerry will lose some crucial states on Election Day if Nader's support nationally approaches 10%. As Gore found in Florida in 2000, it could be Kerry's demise.

Gore's Revenge.

Here's the most intriguing scenario. This time, Bush really wins Florida without a recount. And while he doesn't win states way out of his reach in 2000, such as New York and California, he picks up votes in these giants nonetheless. Remember that the GOP nomination convention will be held in the first week of September in New York, where memories of September 11 are still vivid. And in the Golden State, a very popular GOP governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, will campaign on the President's behalf. Bush probably won't win these states, but he'll do better than last time.

Compound this in other enclaves, and instead of losing the popular vote by 500,000 as he did in 2000, Bush ekes out a razor-thin victory nationally in the popular vote -- but this time, he loses in the Electoral College. How? Ohio and West Virginia go for Kerry, as voter anger over the loss of manufacturing jobs under Bush's tenure bubbles over. Remember that West Virginia, which supported Bush in 2000, traditionally leans Democratic in national contests. And no Republican has ever won the Presidency without winning Ohio -- yet support for Bush in the Buckeye State is floundering.

Far-fetched? There's an old saying that, in politics, absurdity is never a handicap.

Harbrecht, executive editor of BusinessWeek Online, is a veteran political reporter who covered his first Presidential election in 1980.

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