Four Scenarios for Election Night

Can Kerry break the Senate Curse? Will Gore have his revenge? Anyone seen Osama? And does Bush really need Ohio?

By Douglas Harbrecht and Richard S. Dunham

So it has come down to a photo-finish -- as we all thought it would, right? In June, we postulated four possible outcomes for this unusually close and hotly contested Presidential election. In September, before the debates, we explored another quartet of potential conclusions. At that time, we cautioned the debates could quickly put Democrat John Kerry back in the race (they did), or slowly but surely, the race might gravitate back to a dead heat, which it has.

So will George Bush win reelection? Consider these possible outcomes:

Curse Broken, Kerry Wins Pulling Away:

The Red Sox haven't been alone this autumn in trying to break a Bay State spell. Liberal Democrat John Kerry could shatter the political axiom that only moderate Democratic governors from Southern states (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton) can win modern-day Presidential elections. No senator, Democratic or Republican, has won the White House since John F. Kennedy in 1960.

How can he do it? The Democrats turn out their base in record numbers, obliterating the GOP advantage in tracking polls that measure the preferences of "likely" voters (Those who call themselves Republicans usually turn out in more reliable numbers than Democrats, so such polls tend to skew slightly toward GOP candidates). Undecideds break heavily for the Massachusetts Brahmin in the closing 48 hours, especially in the swing states where he's showing momentum.

Result: Kerry wins in a 51%-48% "landslide," taking all the states that Al Gore won in 2000 plus Ohio, New Hampshire, and Florida. It would be the equivalent of the Sox winning eight straight games to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years.

Gore's Revenge.

Democratic turnout is strong but not spectacular. Most undecideds vote for Kerry, but not dramatically (Important footnote to keep in mind: The majority of undecided voters usually goes for challengers against incumbents.)

The Republicans do their usual yeoman job of mobilizing the party base, while Bush picks up more support in huge states like New York, California, Illinois, and Michigan than he did in 2000. The President has no shot at a plurality in those Democratic bastions, so think of such a trend as a post-September 11 sympathy vote.

Result: Bush, who lost by 500,000 votes in the 2000 popular vote, ekes out a plurality this time, but Kerry wins in the Electoral College, narrowly capturing Ohio and New Hampshire or Florida. There's hell to pay: State-by-state litigation, court challenges, angry recriminations -- just like 2000, only worse. Despite a more Prussian party apparatus and money to burn on lawyers, Republicans taste bitter defeat.

Bush Wins Big in a Dream/Nightmare.

Something happens in the closing days of the campaign that leaves voters feeling unsafe. It could be a terrorist attack on domestic soil that sends the markets into a swoon. It could be an attack overseas that showcases Presidential leadership. It could be the latest threats from Osama bin Laden on yet another videotape aired on al-Jazeera TV on Oct. 29. Capture of Osama? Well, can't rule anything out, but don't hold your breath (see BW Online's political blog, "Party Lines").

Reminded of how Bush conducted himself after the Twin Towers fell, voters reject Kerry. Bush wins 52%-47%, taking Ohio and Florida, Wisconsin, Iowa, and New Mexico. Karl Rove clucks with glee after picking Kerry's pockets in Democratic strongholds of Minnesota and Hawaii.

Bush Ekes It Out.

The polls are spot on -- it really is a statistical tie. Turnout nationally is unusually strong. But remember this: Because of congressional reapportionment done since the 2000 Election, Sunbelt states that Bush won last time -- Texas for example -- have picked up seven electoral votes at the expense of Northeast and Midwest states that went Democratic. That means Bush's 271-267 win in the Electoral College four years ago now counts as a 278-260 advantage. So he got a bonus boost, and all he has to do is hold the advantage.

The big story of the night: For the first time in history, a Republican wins the White House without carrying Ohio. The economically battered Buckeye State and New Hampshire, with 24 electoral votes between them, go for Kerry. But Bush holds all the other red states he won in 2000, and with a heavy final-hours push, picks up Wisconsin and Iowa, with a total of 17 electoral votes. That's all Bush needs: He would win in the Electoral College by the same margin as last time, 271-267.

Preposterous? Far-fetched? When it comes to this election, such terms have no relevance.

Harbrecht is executive editor of BusinessWeek Online. Dunham is BusinessWeek's Washington Outlook editor

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