Nail-biting poll numbers disguise a simple fact: All roads to the White House lead through the Electoral College, and George W. Bush has the advantage of a much straighter route.
Handicapping this year's race starts with the assumption that in 2004, states will divide along party lines the same way they did in 2000. But while Mr. Bush squeaked by with just 271 electoral votes last time around, reapportionment following the 2000 Census means his states are now worth 278 electoral votes. That's tantamount to stealing Oregon out of the Democratic column before the first vote is even cast.
On the other hand, Democratic "blue" states have lost both population and electoral clout, so Mr. Kerry starts with an assumed base of 260 votes. In order to win, he'll have to flip a Republican "red" state worth at least 10 electoral votes-without losing any of his own.
That means Pennsylvania's much-contested 21 votes don't really matter much, because the state went for Al Gore in 2000. Despite the millions of dollars Mr. Kerry has poured into Pennsylvania, winning the Keystone State again doesn't get him any closer to his goal.
In fact, only four Bush states appear to be pure tossups. And of those, only Ohio and Florida carry the electoral weight to make a difference to the Democrats. (The other two, New Hampshire and Nevada, have only nine votes between them-not enough to deny Mr. Bush a second term.)
To win, Mr. Kerry has to win every one of the "blue" tossup states (Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and New Mexico) in addition to stealing either Ohio (20 votes) or Florida (27 votes) from the "red" column-not a simple feat when faced with the powers of incumbency. Perfectly executing that plan would be enough-just barely. Capturing Ohio, for instance, would give Mr. Kerry 280 electoral votes, compared with 258 for Mr. Bush. (It takes 270 to win.)
The good news for Republicans is that Mr. Bush could actually lose Ohio-the more vulnerable of his tossup states-and still win the White House by flipping blue states worth a total of just 11 electoral votes. Taken together, the four blue tossup states are worth 32 votes, so any combination of two would be enough for a Bush victory. Furthermore, stealing the blue states could be slightly easier than stealing red ones: In 2000, Mr. Bush won his tossup states by an average margin of 2 percentage points, while the Democrats' margin of victory in the blue states was just three-quarters of 1 percent.
The president also seems to enjoy more upside potential than his Democratic opponent. If either man starts to break away, a whole set of secondary states could come into play. New Jersey, Michigan, and Washington might suddenly be winnable for the Republicans, while Democrats could see wins in West Virginia, Arkansas, and Colorado if their man gains momentum in the closing days. Taken together, the Kerry-leaning states are worth 78 electoral votes, while the Bush-leaning states are worth just 56, so even a Kerry "blowout" would be less one-sided than a Bush romp.
And if no one can open up the race between now and Election Day? The race could remain close, with Bush winning his two major tossup states while losing Nevada and New Hampshire. That would mean nine more votes for Mr. Kerry and nine fewer for Mr. Bush-a tie at 269 apiece. In that case, the election would be decided in the House of Representatives-or, more likely, the courts.