Ever since the 2000 election, political strategists have been bracing for another close presidential contest. With polls showing a tight partisan divide across the nation, the 2004 race has seemed likely to hinge on which side could sway the few undecided voters in a small number of battleground states, from Ohio to Pennsylvania to, once again, Florida.
But lately, many observers are considering an alternative: that the election won't come down to any particular battleground, but will tip decisively, across a swath of states, to one candidate or the other. Rather than hinging on hanging chads, this year's contest could wind up resembling more of a sweep.
Already, the 2004 race has a number of factors that separate it from 2000. Not only is it likely to play out first and foremost as a referendum on the incumbent, with voters weighing how President Bush has performed on a set of key issues from the economy to Iraq. But the pull of national events also represents a far more potent force than usual - one that is largely out of either campaign's control, but seems likely to push public opinion sharply in one direction or the other, depending on how things unfold. "I happen to believe it's 1980," offers Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D) of Illinois. "[Kerry] is going to hang with this guy, the president, all the way through," he predicts. But in the end, "it's going to break open."
Of course, some states will be more competitive than others, and the overall popular vote is likely to stay fairly close.
But recent events in Iraq, particularly the prison scandal at Abu Graib, have been taking a toll on Mr. Bush's overall standing: Several new polls last week showed his approval rating dropping to the mid-40s - a low point for his presidency, and a clear danger zone for an incumbent. And a similar pattern is playing out across battleground states: An American Research Group poll last week in Ohio, for example, found Kerry ahead by 50 to 43 percent, while other new surveys have the Massachusetts senator up in states such as Wisconsin and Florida.
"There is a national component within the states in this race," says ARG pollster Dick Bennett. "What we hear in Ohio is similar to what we hear when we do a national survey, and what we hear when we [poll in] Iowa or Florida."
In the ARG poll, more Ohio voters also said they would vote for Kerry than said they had a favorable opinion of him - "which says it's really a referendum on Bush," Mr. Bennett notes.
This dynamic, in particular, is likely to create a more lopsided result, with undecided voters casting their ballots based on the president's performance, and most breaking one way or the other: "Generally, when it comes to referendums, there are very few close elections, in terms of the electoral college," he says.
The challenge for Bush is that most judgments about his performance are likely to hinge on events that are, for the most part, outside his control.
Certainly, things could swing back in the president's favor, with nearly six months to go before the election and so many unpredictable events still lying ahead. Already, the economy has been steadily improving for weeks - though rising gas prices could prove a growing problem. And if the situation in Iraq improves after the June 30 handover, the president could regain his advantage over Kerry on foreign policy matters.
There's also the possibility of a surprise event, such as the capture of Osama bin Laden, which could give the president a significant boost and catapult him to a decisive victory.
But at the moment, Democrats say, Bush's inability to improve his own standing has left him focused more on casting Kerry as an unacceptable alternative.
"Clearly, the strategy they've chosen is to try to disqualify John Kerry," says a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign. "And clearly, they've done that because they don't think it's possible for the president to repair his own image."
Some of Bush's attacks on Kerry - put forward in a $50 million ad campaign that painted him as a flip-flopper and weak on defense - seem to be sticking. Although Kerry has risen in recent national polls, there are certain warning signs in how voters regard him personally. A recent Pew poll found Bush holds a strong advantage over Kerry when voters are asked which candidate they view as a "strong leader," and "willing to take a stand, even if it's unpopular."
Still, Kerry may have plenty of time to redefine himself for voters - as he's doing now, with biographical ads. Given that Kerry is now edging slightly ahead of Bush suggests that attacks from either side may ultimately shape voters' views far less than external events, say some analysts. "Bush basically threw $50 million out the window," says independent pollster Del Ali.
Lately, the campaigns seem to be operating on an expanding electoral playing field. The moves aren't unusual for this phase of the campaign, as both sides look to make inroads into new territory, and try to get their opponents to spend money shoring up states that should be safe.
But it also hints at the possibility of a more national election. Kerry is running biographical ads in Colorado and Louisiana, as well as in the 17 states both sides have agreed are likely battlegrounds. He also campaigned recently in Kentucky, a "red" state where Bush may have been weakened recently by opposing a federal buyout for tobacco growers.
The Bush campaign, for its part, besides focusing on Democratic-leaning battlegrounds such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, is expanding its reach into more solidly Democratic states such as Delaware.
On a conference call with reporters, Bush strategist Matthew Dowd argued an expanded playing field benefits the president, since his campaign has a much larger field operation and is better prepared to operate in a greater number of states. "We actually believe if we have an expanded map, that plays to our strength," he says.
But if the election winds up turning on broad national issues, then on-the-ground efforts may matter less than it seems.