- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 28, 2004

The many contradictory national polls tracking the presidential election should remind voters these broad-stroke survey results are often deeply flawed forecasters as to who will win in November.

Our presidents are chosen by an electoral vote system, not on the basis of a national popular vote — otherwise (Supreme Court ruling aside) Al Gore would be president. The electoral system is based on population and the number of House and Senate seats each state has — 535 votes plus three for the District of Columbia. You want to be president? Carry enough states to win a majority of the 538 electoral votes and be declared the winner.

That’s why it’s wise to ignore the generalized national polls and follow the specific surveys in each of the most competitive battleground states. They are a far more accurate measurement of who’s ahead.

The big underreported news on this front is that Sen. John Kerry is trailing or tied with President Bush in many of the key states Mr. Gore won in 2000 and that will decide this election. Among them:

• Pennsylvania (21 electoral votes): Mr. Bush led Mr. Kerry here by 46 percent to 42 percent, with 7 percent undecided, according to an April 13-19 Quinnipiac University poll of 769 registered voters. When Ralph Nader is included, Mr. Bush leads 45 percent to 39 percent, with 8 percent for Mr. Nader.

It is widely acknowledged Mr. Kerry cannot win without Pennsylvania, a state Mr. Gore won and one of only seven states with 20 or more electoral votes. Mr. Bush has been in the state 27 times and his ads have saturated the airwaves in major media markets over the past four weeks. Mr. Kerry has visited the state twice since he nailed down the nomination, and Democratic officials there tell me his campaign organization is invisible.

• Michigan (17 electoral votes): With a nearly 7 percent unemployment rate as a result of heavy job losses, largely in its manufacturing base, you would think Mr. Kerry would be soaring in the polls in a state Mr. Gore won handily. Surprisingly, polls show the race virtually tied — with Mr. Kerry at 47 percent and Mr. Bush at 45 percent, according to the latest EPIC/MRA poll.

“It’s dead-even here, but basically there is little or no visible activity by Kerry in the state,” Michigan Democratic pollster Ed Sarpolus told me this week. “This is a very polarized state, a 50-50 state, so if Kerry is not up here telling his story, they will elect a Republican.”

c Florida (27 electoral votes): Mr. Bush barely carried this state in a much-disputed vote count halted by the Supreme Court, but he leads now by a substantial margin — 51 percent to 43 percent, according to a Mason-Dixon poll earlier this month. With a low 4 percent jobless rate and the president’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, in charge of the campaign there, key Democrats have told me the state is “Bush’s to lose.”

• Iowa (7 electoral votes): Mr. Gore easily won this strongly Democratic state, but it has turned into a struggle for Mr. Kerry that speaks volumes about his weakness in the pivotal Midwest. An American Research Group poll of 600 registered, likely voters conducted April 18-21 showed Mr. Bush trailing by a single point — 47 percent to 46 percent. Mr. Nader is at 3 percent. “If we can’t win in Iowa, where can we win?” said a frustrated Democratic official.

• New Jersey (15 electoral votes): Mr. Gore carried this state by 16 points, but a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll taken April 3-10 found it close — 48 percent for Mr. Kerry, 47 percent for Mr. Bush. The poll shocked Democratic strategists, who had put the state solidly in Mr. Kerry’s electoral column.

The numbers in many of the other battleground states tell a similar tale — Mr. Bush showing surprising strength in Gore states where Mr. Kerry should be doing much better than he is.

Mr. Bush also is struggling in some states he carried in 2000 and that he must carry again this time if he is to win a second term. He and Mr. Kerry are virtually tied in Ohio and West Virginia, both hit hard by the long three-year economic downturn. New Mexico, which Mr. Gore carried by 300 votes, is a dead heat.

Still, Mr. Kerry appears in deeper trouble because of the president’s huge advantage across all of the Southern, Western plains and Rocky Mountain states. “Kerry’s campaign is virtually invisible in the South,” a senior Bush campaign official told me this week.

To make up such a huge electoral deficit, Mr. Kerry must carry 74 percent of the remaining states, says Bush political adviser Ralph Reed. But the state-by-state numbers on Mr. Kerry’s electoral map are looking grim right now.

Mr. Bush was leading in Oregon 43 percent to Mr. Kerry’s 41 percent, and had the edge in Wisconsin 49 percent to 45 percent. Even in reliably Democratic Maryland, Mr. Bush has cut deeply into Mr. Kerry’s lead. Mr. Gore won the state by 17 points, but pollster Patrick Gonzales now gives the Massachusetts senator a slim 5 point edge there.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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