Every election has its own peculiarities, and contrary to what the media pundits have to say, this year still may find voters changing their minds up to the time they enter the voting booths. Most of the national polls show Bush with momentum and holding a slight lead, but that could change either way. That has happened before.
The election probably will be close, but a swing of a few votes in the Electoral College could widen the winner's margin of victory.
The national polls reflect a broad cross section, not an Electoral College sampling. Therefore, a national total often reflects overbalance in large states such as New York and California where John Kerry has a large lead, but this doesn't matter in the Electoral College where a one-vote margin in a state is as important as a million-vote lead.
In this election, there probably are more polarized voters than at any time since 1964, when Lyndon Johnson unfairly succeeded in painting Barry Goldwater as a dangerous monster who was likely to drop an atomic bomb at any time. Goldwater was a strong conservative leader, but in his many years in the Senate he proved to be a man with many thoughtful, independent views. This year is different in that there are strong emotions felt against both candidates.
When one looks at the post-World War II elections, four of them, 1956, 1972, 1984 and 1996, were the only occasions when the vote stayed locked in during the last half of the election campaign. The most decisive swing came in 1960 when Richard Nixon embarked on a nonstop 36-hour campaign, which took him from California to Alaska and then back to Wisconsin and Michigan and eventually California at 2 a.m. on Election Day. The final swing, which included a unique four-hour national telethon originating in Detroit, gained the vice president 4 more percent of the vote and brought him to a virtual tie with John Kennedy.
This year's election finds John Kerry virtually ignoring what in the Roosevelt-Truman era was a very solid Democratic South. Except for California, Washington and Oregon, the Republicans have historically dominated the West, but this year Kerry is making a major effort in New Mexico and Nevada. Bush will dominate the South.
It is apparent that there is a major political shift taking place in this country, and it may be a few years before that impact will be felt fully. California is an example. In the recent past, the San Francisco Bay Area was looked upon as the liberal, labor-dominated bastion of the state, and San Diego and Orange counties were conservative strongholds. Los Angeles leaned more Democratic but was surrounded by more conservative Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Today, San Francisco is more liberal than ever before, and Los Angeles has become a Democratic stronghold. San Diego and Orange County population changes have made them less conservative, and the big shift has been that the coastal communities have become more liberal while the giant Central Valley, once a Democratic fiefdom, has turned more solidly Republican. Former Gov. Jerry Brown, once the king of the eccentric liberals, is now looked at as a middle-of-the-road mayor of Oakland.
Variances within a state are common. In Ohio, one of the key battleground states in this election, Democratic Cleveland is only an hour's drive from Stark County, where Canton is considered a bellwether city in most presidential elections. A September poll by The Canton Repository gave Bush a slight lead.
This year, there was high interest in the presidential debates, but it is difficult to determine what impact they had on voters. Polls immediately following the debates showed Kerry leading each time. Republicans were particularly disappointed with George Bush's showing in the first debate. They expected heavyweight punches, while Bush threw mild-mannered jabs. Whether he won or lost, Bush regained the enthusiasm of his supporters in the next two rounds. Interestingly, the polls taken immediately after the debates seemed to reflect a bias based on academic debater points. Bush, the loser by that score, seemed to regain momentum in the aftermath as voters reflected on how they felt about the candidates emotionally.
In most elections since the Truman era, the issues that have had the greatest impact have focused on foreign policy and leadership. The George H.W. Bush loss to Bill Clinton was an exception. A poor Bush campaign and domestic issues were bigger that year, but in 2004 the election clearly has returned to the arena of foreign policy and leadership ability and style.
In my view, the question that has not been raised clearly pertains to style of leadership. Bush clearly is decisive in setting policy, and he, unlike President Johnson and probably Kerry, leaves the battlefront decisions to the generals. Kerry has a record of changing his mind frequently.
The two major things that will have vast influence on how close the election goes will be voter turnout and what happens, good or bad, in Iraq in these final pre-election days.
The two true heroes, who during the post-World War II period have run for president were John F. Kennedy and Bob Dole, but neither claimed his war record qualified him to be president, as has Kerry. On the other hand, Kerry's days as a protester have become a major issue in this campaign. The last "protester" candidate was George McGovern, who lost to Nixon in 1972.
This has been the nation's longest election campaign, and in its final days more and more voters are asking, "When will it end?" Will moderately interested citizens and young voters turn out in greater numbers this year than in other years, or have they lost interest? That could be a key question.
In years past, the Democratic big-city machines would turn out voters, but that no longer is the case.
Karl Rove has been working for months on generating the forces to bring out a large Bush turnout, and the Kerry forces in recent months also have given turnout full focus.
Most attention is given to the big battleground states, but a tiny state like New Hampshire could make the difference under our Electoral College system of selecting a president.
That is one thing that has not changed.
Herbert G. Klein is a national fellow at AEI and former editor in chief of Copley Newspapers.