The final event on George W. Bush’s schedule on the final day of the 2004 presidential election campaign was not a late-night gathering in a “battleground” state such as Florida or Ohio. Rather, it was a Monday evening “victory rally” on the campus of Southern Methodist University in his home state of Texas.
Texas? After months of focusing on the dozen or more targeted states that supposedly will decide this election, why did the Bush camp decide to finish things off in the one state that ought to be securely in the president’s column?
Because, despite everything that has been said over the past few months, this campaign is not just about battleground states. There is also a national fight to win the popular vote, and Bush’s election-eve trip to Texas was an acknowledgment of that fact.
To be sure, the fight for the popular vote was overshadowed during this year’s long campaign by the fight to reach the “magic” number of 270 electoral votes. That Electoral College fight plays out in the battleground states. And as the 2004 campaign raced to a close, it was far from settled. At least 20 states–from Hawaii to Maine–saw pre-election poll numbers that suggested either Bush or Democrat John Kerry could win their precious electoral votes. Never before in the modern history of American electoral politics have so many states been so undecided on the eve of an election.
The candidates could not possibly visit all of those states before the voting started, however, so they effectively ceded states to one another in the final days. Both campaigns narrowed the focus of their last-minute campaigning to a handful of states where polls suggest the two campaigns are effectively tied. Bush campaigned in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Mexico, while Kerry awoke Monday in Florida and then flew north for a stop in Wisconsin, several stops in Ohio–including a huge rally in Cleveland where Bruce Springsteen sang and urged the crowd to “Vote for Change”–and a return to Wisconsin for a 1:00am Tuesday rally in the city of LaCrosse. Kerry spent the night in LaCrosse, where local television news programs reach audiences in the battleground states of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, before beginning a Tuesday morning journey home–via Ohio, again–to Boston.
Kerry can be reasonably assured of winning roughly 200 electoral votes from states where he led going into today’s election, while Bush is assured of at least that many electoral votes. This means that whichever campaign secures a clear majority of the roughly 135 electoral votes that are up for grabs in the so-called “super-battleground” states that have been the targets of so much late-in-the-day politicking will be well positioned to claim an Electoral College majority and the presidency.
On election eve, late polls from the “super-battleground states” suggested that Kerry might be the one staking that claim.
But the key word there is “claim.”
With so many undecided states at the close of campaigning, the Bush team was determined to cover all of its bases. And one of those bases involves securing the popular-vote win that could convey legitimacy in the chaotic aftermath of a close and contentious election.
The Bush camp got a huge break in 2000, when Al Gore and his backers failed to play up a clear popular-vote win by the Democrat in order to gain an advantage in the public relations fight that was every bit as significant as the confusing and inconsistent recounting of Florida ballots. When Democrats failed to press the case that Gore was the popular choice of the American people, they made it easier for Florida Republicans and a politicized US Supreme to hand the presidency to Bush.
As the campaign wound down, Bush campaign czar Karl Rove and his aides were fully conscious of the prospects for similar scenarios to play out this year.
For instance, let’s say that no clear winner emerges tonight, or that the states split in a manner that produces either an Electoral College tie or a very narrow lead for Kerry. There are no guarantees of such a result, but there is a prospect. And the Bush camp does not fret about prospects that might prevent the president from securing a second term. It plans.
Essential to such planning is the assembly of all the tools that could be required to win a post-election PR battle–including that popular-vote win.
Hence the trip to Texas, where polls showed Bush leading Kerry by a comfortable but not overwhelming margin. The Bush stop in Texas on election eve was designed to ramp up excitement about the president’s campaign in hopes of spurring a “home state pride” increase in turnout that could pad Bush’s popular-vote total not just in Texas but nationwide.
Make no mistake, the first goal of the Bush campaign is an Electoral College win.
But, failing that, they want a popular-vote win that they can use as part of a push to raise questions about the legitimacy of a Kerry victory in the Electoral College and, if that victory cannot be upset, about a Kerry presidency.
Is it really possible that Kerry could win the Electoral College even as Bush wins the popular vote?
Kerry leads in the District of Columbia and 14 states, including some that are rich in electoral votes, such as California (55), New York (31) and Illinois (21). Bush leads in 25 states that, for the most part, have small numbers of electoral votes, such as Wyoming (3), North Dakota (3), South Dakota (3), Idaho (4) and Mississippi (6). By far, Bush’s best state when it comes to electoral votes is Texas (34).
If polls are to be believed, however, Bush should win his “safe” states by significantly greater margins than Kerry piles up in his “safe” states. For instance, polls show Bush leading by 45 points in Utah, 36 points in Wyoming, 30 points in Oklahoma, 29 points in Nebraska, 26 points in Louisiana, 23 points in Kansas, 21 points in Montana and 21 points in Kentucky.
By contrast, the only place where Kerry leads by more than 20 points is the District of Columbia. Kerry’s lead in New York state is a solid 18 points, but the latest poll from California has him ahead by just 7 points.
Of course, New York and California produce a lot more raw votes than Wyoming and North Dakota. So, to secure a popular vote win, Bush needs a big “bump” from Texas. Yet, on the ground in Texas last week, some polls have suggested that Bush is likely to win the state by a relatively narrow 55-45 margin. That would translate to a margin as small as 600,000 votes, as compared with the 1.4 million vote margin Bush secured in Texas in 2000.
That 800,000-vote slippage could spell the difference between a popular-vote win and a popular-vote defeat for Bush. And the Bush team does not want to cede the popular vote.
So, when Bush went to Texas Monday night–to deliver a pointed anti-Kerry speech in which the president pumped up the crowd with “He’s from Massachusetts, I’m from Texas” rhetoric–he did not do so simply because he wanted to sleep in his own bed on the ranch at Crawford. Bush and Karl Rove were, even at the last minute of the campaign they have so skillfully manipulated, cooking up one last scheme for maintaining their grip on the White House.
John Nichols’ book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, “This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president.” Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, “The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton’s no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting).”
Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and by clicking here.