Trail Mix: Battle of the Battlegrounds

For many months in this eternal general election, several battleground states have vied for the title of The Next Florida. Pennsylvania has been a strong contender throughout (a particular favorite of the Bush campaign), while Wisconsin has launched a late-breaking bid for the award. Still, it's Ohio that believes it has a lock on the TNF title. Its Republican secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, has even encouraged comparisons with 2000 Florida counterpart Katherine Harris--a shameless bid for the MVP award in the TNF contest.

But as Election '04 draws to an end, the polls point to one clear winner. It turns out that Florida is The Next Florida. With the numbers exceptionally close and frustratingly unpredictable, both campaigns can plausibly claim to be heading for victory in the Sunshine State. The latest polls give Kerry a slender one-point advantage, according to the final tracking poll by Zogby. Unless the voters break in one direction on the day, we're headed for another Tempest in Tallahassee.

So it was no surprise to find John Kerry starting the last full day of campaigning in Orlando, after a late-night rally in Tampa on Sunday. And it was a surprise to find George W. Bush with no stop in Florida on Monday, and nothing on Election Day itself (he cancelled earlier plans to drop by on the way back to watch the results in the White House). Either Bush is superconfident of victory in Florida, or he thinks his rallies there on Sunday were enough to carry two days of news.

Instead, Bush is staking his career with an offensive play in three states that Al Gore won four years ago: New Mexico, Iowa and Pennsylvania. His only defensive moves on Monday and Tuesday were in the former Republican stronghold of Ohio. Remember: Florida is a must-win state for Bush. Without it, he's struggling to reach the magic 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. While it's possible for Bush to win without Florida, he'd need to sweep so many other battleground states that he'd be heading for a landslide across the country.

Kerry, in contrast, mapped out a day that balanced his offensive and defensive strategies. After starting in Florida, Kerry visited two Gore states--Wisconsin and Michigan--before returning to another Bush state, Ohio. By waking up in Florida and going to bed in Ohio, he circled round two of the three big battlegrounds (Pennsylvania being the one left out).

As for the mood among Kerry's aides, it looked as sunny as the 90-degree morning in Orlando. Maybe it's just because they were at the end of a long campaign. Or maybe they just liked the look of the early numbers. Either way, Kerry's staffers decided to build a human pyramid to engage in some cheerleading outside St. John Vianney Church, where the senator went to mass on All Saints' Day. "Go Kerry!" shouted one exuberant staffer, shedding the tensions of the last several days of campaigning. Compared to the fraught mood on Friday, when the Osama bin Laden tape emerged, Monday's monkeying around was positively exuberant.

Optimism can be a misleading sign of what's ahead at the end of a campaign. Ask anyone who sat next to Karl Rove in the final days of 2000 when he predicted victory in California and a 400-vote landslide in the Electoral College. But Kerry's aides believe they have a little more ground for self-confidence this time around, even if they're not predicting anything like a win on that scale. Citing their own assessment of early voting in 12 battleground states, Kerry's campaign says it has already has a six-point advantage among the 5 million votes cast. The critical test is less about the lead that emerges in early voting and more about whether these ballots are cast by newly registered voters or voters who were no-shows last time around. If the Kerry campaign is merely driving its base to the polls early, there seems little advantage gained. For what it's worth, the campaign says its early voters are a mix of new and old voters alike--26 per cent were either new or sporadic voters.

Kerry himself is in an unusually upbeat mood. His delivery has become crisper, more attuned to his crowds, and his zingers have evolved and improved in these closing days. Kerry especially seems to enjoy harking back to his debates with Bush, and the president's insistence in their first encounter that he was working hard. "Remember the first debate?" Kerry asked a crowd of ecstatic supporters at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. "The president kept leaning on that podium looking at you and he kept saying: 'It's hard work, it's hard work, it's hard work.' Well I came here to Detroit, to Michigan, where people know what hard work is. I came here tonight to say to Michigan and the rest of the country, I am ready and impatient to relieve him of that hard work." Kerry even worked in a reasonable sports zinger, quoting the great quip by Muhammad Ali to George Foreman in their epic Rumble in the Jungle. "The time came when Muhammad just sort of stood back and said: 'George, is that all you got?'" (Rope-a-dope Ali knocked out Foreman in the eighth round.)

Kerry's lightness might be the combined effect of campaigning with Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, and Stevie Wonder in the final week, along with the triumphant Red Sox management. All that and a Redskins defeat against the Packers on Sunday--an allegedly perfect indicator of an incumbent's defeat. To many politicians, such omens might be laughed off as nonsense. But to an exceptionally superstitious senator--and a hugely competitive sportsman--such portents seem to be a source of energy. Kerry brandishes a buckeye nut at every crowd in Ohio--a lucky charm that he plucks out of his pocket each time he takes the stage.

We'll find out soon enough whether that buckeye proves lucky for Kerry. But for the sake of the nation and its political life, let's hope that one side is fortunate to win big in the key battlegrounds--Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida--without need for a recount or litigation. Let's hope no state is unlucky enough to become The Next Florida.