American presidential elections are actually 50 separate state ballots. Each state gets electoral votes equal to the total of its House of Representatives seats plus its two Senate seats. The winner in a state gets all the electoral votes; 270 votes in this Electoral College wins the election.
That's why national polls may be misleading. State-by-state standings are more important. A candidate can lose the popular vote and still win the electoral college (it's happened twice). But it would be hard to lose the popular vote by more than 2 percent and win, so the polls are important indicators of where things are heading.
Republican challenger Bob Dole seems to be getting a "bump" in the polls from his proposals to cut taxes and balance the federal budget, from his selection of "outreach" advocate Jack Kemp as a running mate, and from news media coverage of this week's Republican convention in San Diego. A week or so ago he was more than 20 percent behind Clinton in some polls. Now his deficit is about 10 percent. It may shrink further, but Clinton will get his own lift from the Democrats' convention at month's end.
Senior Dole adviser Charles Black, speaking at a Monitor breakfast in San Diego, says the real relative positions of the two candidates will become more evident only a week or two after the Democrats finish their convention. As always, the trends, not day-to-day poll figures, are the key. In 1980 Ronald Reagan moved up 10 points in the polls in the final three or four days. Gerald Ford gained 2 points a day in 1976 and might have won had the election been held two days later.
Based on state-by-state polls, Dole is currently behind in states where he should be leading. Florida, one of the largest electoral states, should be safely his but so far is not. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio - key states Dole needs to win - currently lean toward Clinton. That is where the battle will be fought.
Clinton must carry California, the largest electoral state, or he cannot win. Dole, on the other hand, can win without it. But his pick of Jack Kemp signifies, among other things, that he is not going to write off the Golden State, currently leaning toward Clinton. Kemp is from California, and as Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Claremont Graduate School told a group of foreign reporters covering the convention, he "understands California and speaks Californian" in a way Dole does not. Mr. Black expects Kemp to campaign widely in California and in major urban centers such as Chicago and Detroit, where his well-known advocacy of market-oriented programs to help the inner city and minorities may boost the Republican ticket and help it capture those all-important mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes states.
But there is a serious wild card, and that is the Reform Party. If billionaire Ross Perot gains that party's nomination, as seems likely, his presence changes a great deal. Perot spent $50 million in television ads undermining George Bush in the 1992 campaign, which helped elect Bill Clinton by a 43 percent plurality of popular votes. Depending on whether Perot attacks Clinton or Dole, and the amount of advertising he puts into the effort, the Democrat or the Republican could find himself in a similar two-front war that will be hard to win.