Hey, George W. Bush, you just 'won' the second presidential debate. What are you going to do now?"
"I'm going to Michigan!"
Sorry, Disney World. After a perfect high jump or record-breaking swim, Olympic athletes may head to the Magic Kingdom, but after a crucial debate, presidential candidates head to the Midwest.
Back to the Midwest. For the umpteenth time. After essentially battling to a draw in the Winston-Salem debate, both George W. Bush and Al Gore wasted no time in getting back to the region they've come to know best. Mr. Bush went to Michigan, while Mr. Gore campaigned in Milwaukee. It was hardly the first time: Since Labor Day, Mr. Bush alone has made 15 appearances in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri-and that's not counting stops by his running mate and various relatives.
A foreigner observing his first American election might think the two parties were vying for king of the Rust Belt. What's going on here?
It's more than just geography: Mr. Bush has visited Wisconsin five times more often than neighboring Minnesota, while Mr. Gore has never bothered to set foot in Indiana. Those states, like about 35 others, are considered a "lock" for one candidate or the other, so neither party wants to squander precious resources there. With the race going down to the wire, neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Gore has the 270 votes needed to win the Electoral College. That means that just a couple of million undecided voters in nine battleground states will make all the difference on Nov. 7. And that, in turn, means those nine states will get almost all the candidates' attention between now and then.
Two of the states, Pennsylvania and Florida, are eastern. Two others, Washington and Oregon, are in the Pacific Northwest. But the single largest cache of undecided electoral votes is clustered in the industrial Midwest. More than any other region, the Rust Belt is driving both the style and the substance of election 2000.
Take Mr. Bush's energy policy, which he formulated only recently. When Mr. Gore went to vote-rich Pennsylvania and called on his boss to tap the nation's strategic petroleum reserve in an effort to keep down the cost of home heating oil, the Bush campaign scrambled for a suitable response. Cold winters, after all, are one unifying characteristic of the Great Lakes region, and Republicans could hardly afford to let voters there be bought off with the promise of cheap heat this winter.
So, on Sept. 29, the Bush entourage rolled into Saginaw, Mich., for what handlers billed as a "major policy speech." Some 150 blue plastic chairs sprouted in front of the assembly line at Wright-K Technologies, a manufacturer of specialty machines for the automotive industry. While dozens of invited guests shivered outside on a chilly fall morning, TV crews got in early to set up on carefully positioned risers. The coffee vending machine on the factory floor dispensed free caffeine to bleary-eyed journalists. Workers in company logo-wear were liberally sprinkled throughout the factory, wherever the cameras might turn.
When Mr. Bush finally took the dais to deliver his energy speech, the importance of the setting became obvious. While Mr. Gore had framed his oil policy in terms of low-income consumers who couldn't afford high heating bills, Mr. Bush was more narrowly focused. Calling the Clinton-Gore energy policy "nothing but excuses and bad ideas," he explicitly linked his own policy to the lifeblood of Michigan's economy: the auto industry.
Each of the last three recessions was tied to an oil crisis, he noted. Without a steady and secure oil supply, Americans would have no use for the shiny new models rolling off Detroit's assembly lines. And, he hinted, that might be just fine with his opponent, who declared his antipathy to the internal combustion engine in his environmental tract, Earth in the Balance.
Appealing to the auto industry is a given in Michigan politics, but tying an entire energy policy to that appeal was a stroke of genius for the Bush campaign. The most controversial part of the speech-a call for new drilling in the Alaskan wilderness-elicited an uncharacteristically muted response from the tree-hugging vice president. With Michigan's 18 electoral votes looming large in his calculus, Mr. Gore simply could not afford to alienate voters there by seeming to defend the Alaskan wilderness at the expense of autoworkers.
"Family values" provides another good example of how Midwestern politics is driving the message for the entire country. During the primary season, Republican candidates, in particular, spoke largely in the terminology of the Bible Belt, stressing issues such as the right to life, gay marriage, and prayer in schools.
But on Oct. 5, speaking from a classroom in suburban Detroit, Mr. Bush showed how "family values" had taken on a distinctively Rust Belt tone. "Today, I want to talk about how we can help deal with a culture that sometimes is the enemy of what parents are trying to teach," he said in a media market that reaches half of all suburban swing voters in the state. Among the proposed "tools for parents" that the government would provide under a Bush administration: federal tax breaks and regulatory freedom for corporate employees who work from home; increased flexibility to choose comp time rather than overtime pay; Internet filters in schools and libraries; and a "family hour" of non-objectionable TV programming in early prime time each night.
The next day, during a speech on the other side of the state, Mr. Gore shot back with his own version of Midwestern family values: expanded Head Start programs; tax cuts for child care; and more government-funded after-school programs. Neither man mentioned the family issues that are popular in more conservative sections of the country. Instead, each one's message was carefully tailored to polling results among suburban Midwesterners.
This "Midwest effect" can work both for and against conservatives. While the region's moderate politics may muffle Bible Belt issues, it also keeps the Democrats from playing to their core liberal constituency. Left-wing Democrats in California and New York, for instance, have called for more emphasis by Mr. Gore on issues such as gun control and unlimited abortion. But those are issues that don't play well in the heartland, leaving Mr. Gore to moderate his tone.
Some may grumble at the outsized role that five states have come to play in the election, but there's no denying their strategic importance. With 69 electoral votes among them, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, and Wisconsin are states that neither side can afford to write off. In fact, neither campaign has yet been able to come up with an electoral map that gets them to 270 votes without at least splitting the Rust Belt states. (Three other Midwestern states are no longer in play. Minnesota leans strongly Democratic, while Indiana goes just as strongly for Republicans. And, faced with an 11-point deficit in the polls, the Bush campaign has recently pulled its television ads in Illinois, which earlier had been considered a toss-up.)
Candidates like campaigning here because the states share so many demographic features. All are heavily unionized, thanks to their history of heavy manufacturing. Thousands of blue-collar, "Reagan Democrats" are liberal on issues like the minimum wage, but often fairly conservative on social issues. Outside the big cities, all five states have major agricultural economies, from the dairy farms of Wisconsin to the cornfields of Iowa. And, with the exception of Iowa, the states all have large Catholic populations-anywhere from 20 to 30 percent.
Given their shared interests, a candidate's message in one state is likely to resonate across the entire region. But there are differences, as well. From political machines to minority populations, each state presents a unique challenge to Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore. Here's a look at each candidate's opportunities and obstacles in this crucial region:
Iowa: With just eight electoral votes, Iowa usually gets ignored once its first-in-the-nation caucus is over. But the extraordinarily close election this year has put the state back on the political map. Though it leans Democratic, Iowa voters are quirky-even cranky. Democrats are better organized for get-out-the-vote efforts, but the religious right is strong here, which may offset Mr. Gore's natural union advantage.
Missouri: A classic swing state, Missouri has gone with the winner in every presidential election of the past 100 years (except 1956, when voters preferred Adlai Stevenson to Dwight Eisenhower). That makes it an important barometer of the national mood, as well as a source of 11 electoral votes. So far, that barometer has been inconclusive, with the latest polls showing the race deadlocked: 43 percent for Mr. Gore, 40 percent for Mr. Bush. Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan is running for Senate, which has kept his political machine from devoting its full attention to Mr. Gore. And Republicans believe a recent Clinton veto of a spending bill will drive voters to their party. The president insisted-and the vice president agreed-that the bill be rewritten to allow altering the flow of the Missouri River in order to protect two endangered species of birds. Farmers in the state argue that would cause flooding along the banks-and they vow to mobilize voters against the administration's stand.
Wisconsin: Political pundits are amazed that this state's 11 electoral votes are even in doubt. Wisconsin is such a reliably Democratic state that it actually voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988 (almost no one else did). Milwaukee and Madison, home of the notoriously liberal University of Wisconsin, turn out hordes of Democratic voters every Election Day. But the Fox Valley, running from Green Bay to Oshkosh, is heavily Catholic and working-class and may turn out enough Republicans to swing the state to Mr. Bush. Four-term Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson is working hard for his Texas colleague, but Mr. Gore is saturating the airwaves: From June 1 through mid-September, more pro-Gore ads aired in the Green Bay TV market than anywhere else in the country. A poll taken before the first debate shows Mr. Gore up by 5 points, but Gov. Thompson says independent polls have the candidates tied at 41 percent each.
Michigan: Perhaps the hardest-fought of all the Midwestern states, Michigan's 18 electoral votes could well make the difference on Nov. 7. Both sides have the state in their must-win column, and, with polls showing the race tied, either side could triumph. Some union members are still angry with the Clinton administration's support for NAFTA, which they see as draining manufacturing jobs out of heavily unionized states like Michigan. And Mr. Bush has tapped into a latent fear of his rival's environmental policies that could threaten the auto industry. Still, union leaders have vowed a massive get-out-the-vote effort, and Mr. Bush may be hard-pressed to match their numbers in the western part of the state, a traditionally Republican enclave. Gov. John Engler is an enthusiastic Bush supporter, but his machine proved ineffective in the primary, when John McCain scored an upset win. As in Wisconsin, Ralph Nader could steal just enough Gore voters to allow Mr. Bush to slip by with a narrow win.
Ohio: The biggest prize among the up-for-grabs Midwestern states also happens to be the most reliably Republican. While Mr. Gore surged in nationwide polls following the Democratic National Convention, he never gained on Mr. Bush in Ohio. Good thing, too: No Republican has ever been elected president without winning the state, currently worth 21 electoral votes. Still, the race is close, with 48 percent favoring Mr. Bush to 43 percent for Mr. Gore, and a late surge of Democratic union support could turn things around quickly. That will keep both candidates coming back to Ohio for frequent visits between now and Election Day.
If Mr. Bush is tempted to take Ohio's 21 electoral votes for granted, he'd do well to remember the example of Gerald Ford. In 1976, the incumbent president lost the state by just 11,000 votes out of 4 million cast. A win in Ohio combined with three electoral votes from tiny Delaware would have kept Jimmy Carter out of the White House.
Note to the Bush campaign: Better not spend all your time in the Midwest. Delaware is still a toss-up.