With 12 days left before the election, millions of Americans have already cast their ballots — records are being set for early voting and absentee ballots in all of the battleground states and in many non-battleground states. Yet, it is no easier to identify a frontrunner now than it was last spring. Rarely in history has an American presidential contest remained this close for this long, and it is beginning to appear that, like 2000, 2004 may be a year when neither candidate opens up a clear lead at the close of the contest.
That’s got George W. Bush’s reelection campaign team running scared, as races that stay close to the end tend to break for the challenger. But John Kerry’s camp has had a hard time identifying themes in the post-debate period. For instance, it took the Democrat the better part of a week to figure out that the shortage of flu vaccine is precisely the sort of real-life crisis that illustrates the problems that result when the federal government adopts a hands-off approach to health care concerns.
The big movement seems to be occurring not in the presidential race but in contests for the Senate, where Republican overconfidence has created unexpected openings for the Democrats.
Here’s where the race stands right now:
READING THE POLLS: The polls are all over the place, reflecting the challenges that arise when the practitioners of an inexact science attempt to predict a contest that is too close to call. In recent days, polls have anticipated everything from a Bush landslide to a narrow Kerry win. The latest surveys from the Gallup organization put President Bush well ahead of Democrat John Kerry. But four years ago at this time, Gallup was also predicting a landslide win for the Republican who ended up losing by almost 600,000 votes nationally to Democrat Al Gore.
On the other end of the spectrum are John Zogby’s tracking polls, which have Kerry moving up in recent days to a point where he is now consistently tied with Bush. Zogby’s group goes out of its way to contact potential voters who are not always reached by other polling groups — Americans under 30, the urban and rural poor, new citizens — and the hope of Democrats is that his numbers offer a better sense of what the November 2 results will look like if turnout surges.
One of the most traditionally reliable surveys, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, has Bush and Kerry tied at 48 percent each. That’s probably about right, as far as the national polling goes. But, remember, national polls are the cotton candy of presidential politics. You need a balanced diet of battleground state information to get a clear picture of what is going on.