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Writing about the presidential election last summer, I theorized that the race between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry would come down to a few hotly contested states in the Midwest and the West, plus (of course) Florida. Nearly six months later, that is still true. We are almost surely looking at another long Election Night, with another split verdict between the popular vote and the Electoral College a distinct possibility.

Four years ago, George W. Bush and Al Gore essentially fought to a draw, with Bush drawing strong support from rural areas and small town residents, white Southerners, religious voters, men, the Mountain West and upper income citizens, while Gore ran well with union members, Yankees, racial minorities, urban residents, women and voters with graduate degrees. Neither Bush nor Gore won more than 10 percent from the other party's rank and file.

Four years later, not much has changed. Polls show that the patterns in the popular vote are almost identical to those of 2000 - Bush is very strong in rural areas, and the Electoral College vote is another toss-up.

As the race enters its final days, the election could yet be swayed by an unexpected gaffe, a foreign policy event or a surge of turnout by new voters. John Zogby, whose surveys were exactly right in 1996 and 2000, has a Bush lead of 2 points, well within any survey's margin of error. In other words, the popular vote is too close to call. Like a close basketball or football game, whoever scores last is going to win.

After getting a huge surge in popularity after Sept. 11 that lasted more than two years, Bush's job approval ratings have settled down to the 48 percent to 53 percent range. Anytime an incumbent is under 50 percent in a two-way contest, he is vulnerable. Polls taken since the last presidential debate have shown an average Bush lead of 2 to 4 points, with roughly 4 percent undecided.

Historically, most of the undecided voters break for the challenger. The reason for this pattern is because if, after four years, some voters are still unsure whether they like the incumbent, they probably really don't and end up supporting the challenger. So if history repeats itself, Kerry is probably either tied or slightly ahead in the popular vote. And we should recall that Bush lost his lead in the final week of the 2000 race when his drunken driving arrest was revealed.

Neither candidate has been able to break out to a big lead over the summer and fall. Kerry received very little bounce from his convention, while the president's September lead evaporated after the first debate. Bush also appears to have been unsuccessful in winning over Democratic voters the way Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan did in their successful re-election efforts. Meanwhile, Kerry has had trouble co-opting the center the way former President Bill Clinton did in the '90s. The image of a "Massachusetts liberal," pounded home by the president and Vice President Cheney, seems to be hurting Kerry in the crucial Midwest. By and large, the nation seems to be as divided as ever over the Bush presidency.

The Electoral College

But as Election 2000 reminded us, the national popular vote doesn't really choose the president; states do through the Electoral College. A national election is really 51 different local contests (including the District of Columbia).

There are a total of 538 electoral votes. Forty-eight states and D.C. award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Nebraska and Maine award theirs to the winner of each congressional district with a two-vote bonus to the candidate who carries the state's popular vote.

Bill Cavala, a veteran California Democratic consultant, has noted that when the popular vote is evenly split, the election comes down to a chess game in the Electoral College. This year, that chess game will likely be as desperately tight as it was in 2000. The famous Republican Red-Democratic Blue map from 2000 will get another workout this year.

Where they stand

Based on strong partisan history (Democrats in Massachusetts and Republicans in Utah) or current double-digit poll leads, each man has an almost equal-sized base in the Electoral College. Bush has a lock on much of the South, the Farm Belt and the Rocky Mountain states. Kerry is strong in California and most of the Northeast (see the map accompanying this story).

Bush starts out with a base of 153 safe votes with another 69 votes leaning to him, for a total of 222. Kerry seems certain to win 149 votes and has another 58 votes leaning Democratic, for a total of 207. The election will be decided in nine swing states with 109 votes, all targeted by both parties with massive advertising and heavy get-out-the-vote efforts.

If Kerry has a decent shot at winning the national popular vote, Bush has a slight edge in the Electoral College because of his strength in the smaller rural states.

In 2000, Bush carried 30 states with 271 electoral votes. After the 2001 reapportionment, the Bush states had a net gain of seven votes. So in order to win the 270 required for victory, Kerry will have to: a) hold onto to all the Gore states; and b) move either one large Bush state (like Florida or Ohio) to the Democratic column, a medium-sized Bush state (Missouri or Arizona) or some combination of smaller states.

As of Wednesday, Kerry did not have a significant polling lead -- more than 5 points -- in any state that Bush won in 2000. However, the president has not gained any ground either, as he is not significantly ahead in any Gore state from 2000.

The early indicators

This year, three states primarily in the Eastern Time Zone will tell us very quickly the shape of the election: Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. For the foreseeable future, these states will be the presidential battlegrounds. Any candidate who sweeps all three will be the next president, period.

Gore carried Pennsylvania by four percentage points in 2000, while Bush won Ohio by the same margin and Florida by 537 votes out of nearly 6 million.

The polls in Ohio close at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. If President Bush loses Ohio, he is in trouble -- no Republican has ever been elected without winning the Buckeye State. A Bush loss in Ohio would mean he'd have to win Florida, plus take away a few Gore states like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. That's possible, due to their large rural populations, but difficult, due to their Democratic heritage.

Pennsylvania's polls close at 8 p.m. Eastern time. If Kerry can't win in this Eastern, urban/labor state, it means he's likely to also lose traditionally Republican Ohio, and it will be almost mathematically impossible for him to get to 270 votes.

Florida has exactly 10 percent of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win, and whoever carries the Sunshine State will take a giant step toward victory. Most of Florida's polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern Time, although the polls in the Panhandle region in western Florida close at 8 p.m. All three of these states were too close to call as of midweek.

If the president holds on to Florida and Ohio as he did in 2000, plus carries all the states he has a polling lead in now, he'll have 269 votes, needing just one more vote to win. That vote could come from one of Maine's two congressional districts or any of the remaining toss-up states.

Among these states, Bush carried Nevada and New Hampshire narrowly in 2000, while just barely losing Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and New Mexico. Even if Kerry lost both Florida and Ohio, he could still force a tie in the Electoral College by running the table and winning every toss-up state.

Extra innings

But even without a 269-each tie, Election 2004 may not be settled on Tuesday. After the 2000 controversy, Congress passed the "Help America Vote Act." This new law allows voters whose legal eligibility is in doubt to cast "provisional ballots" that may or may not be counted (their legal status will be decided later). It is estimated that more than 1 million "provisionals" will be cast this year. That's nearly twice as large as Gore's national margin four years ago.

If there are enough close states, legal disputes could delay the certification of the winner for weeks. Additionally, Jo Becker and Thomas Edsall reported in the Washington Post that up to 25 percent of all Americans will use absentee ballots or early voting options. That too could spark massive amounts of litigation.

Another potential minefield of controversy lies in Colorado, with a proposed state constitutional amendment to split Colorado's nine electoral votes proportionally. This law, if passed via referendum on Tuesday, is set to take effect immediately. If Colorado had split its votes in 2000, the four votes Gore would have picked up there would have made him president.

The GOP would surely sue to stop its immediate impact on the grounds that it is illegal to change the rules in the middle of the game. However, the latest surveys in Colorado show that the proposed amendment is losing.

Other outcomes

Regardless of the final vote count (and recount), several other issues will be explored in this election. For example, can the Republicans extend their recent dominance of the South by winning all five U.S. Senate seats vacated by popular retiring Southern Democrats? If yes, they will likely hold the Senate for the rest of this decade. Will Republican gerrymanders in Texas and Florida win the GOP enough House seats to make that chamber safely Republican for the next four years?

What of the plan by Bush master strategist Karl Rove to increase the Republican share of the black and Hispanic vote? The national exit polls should tell us whether the GOP was successful on this front by 9 p.m. Will minority turnout be as high as or higher than the record levels of 2000? If Kerry wins, will he have any coattails for his fellow Democrats or any mandate? Which issue is more important: foreign policy (Iraq, terrorism) or the economy?

Referendums on social services for illegal immigrants in Arizona and gay marriage in Ohio should bring out social conservatives in both states. Will that be enough for Bush in those critical states? Will the total number of voters exceed the record of 105 million in 2000?

The winner is . . .

The startling events of four years ago prove the foolishness of making predictions, but political junkies like myself can't help it. So, here goes: In 2000, Gore won the national popular vote by running big margins in the largest metropolitan areas of both coasts. But Bush secured his electoral majority by narrowly winning most of the smaller states. That scenario will repeat itself Tuesday.

Electoral Votes needed to win --270
States safe for Kerry -- 149
States leaning to Kerry -- 58
Total -- 207
States safe for Bush -- 153
States leaning to Bush -- 69
Total -- 222

What to look for Tuesday night
Ohio is key for Bush. If President Bush loses Ohio, he is in trouble -- no Republican has ever been elected without winning the Buckeye State.

Pennsylvania is key for Kerry. If John Kerry can't win in Pennsylvania, he's likely to also lose traditionally Republican Ohio, and it will be almost mathematically impossible for him to get to 270 votes.

Florida is important to both candidates. Whoever carries the Sunshine State will take a giant step toward victory.

Patrick Reddy serves as a consultant to California's Assembly Democrats.