- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

In 1960, Richard Nixon pledged to visit all 50 states, and he kept his promise. He also lost that election by a tiny margin (similar to 2000). Some observers contend he actually won but was denied his victory when JFK’s father allegedly bought the vote total in Illinois.

Since that time, presidential candidates have increasingly put their time and presence only in states where polls indicate the vote is close. In 2000, the race between George Bush and Al Gore came down to one state in which the popular vote was not finally determined until a month after the election. Mr. Bush won the state, and thus the presidency, but lost the popular vote — a curious but occasional idiosyncrasy of the U.S. electoral college system.

The 2004 election is turning out to be a “pure” electoral college campaign. Both major party candidates are putting almost all their efforts in a relatively small number of so-called battleground states, and most of the nation’s voters are forced to observe the presidential election vicariously.

These battleground states include New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, West Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon and Nevada. Some of the most populous states — including California, New York, Texas and Illinois — are considered so one-sided that their closest encounter with a presidential and vice presidential candidate, or their spouses, happens when one of them flies over their air space while en route to a contested area.

Erie, Pa., is 135th in metropolitan area population in the country. As of a month ago, it had received the eighth-largest total of presidential campaign TV advertising in actual dollar amounts. Pennsylvania is a key state in the election this year (Mr. Gore won it in 2000), and Erie is both a classical urban test market city, and its many blue-collar Catholic and nearby rural voters are up for grabs this year. “I almost dread turning on TV these days,” one Erieite recently told me, “there’s nothing but political ads.” In the intensely populated eastern United States, with overlapping major media markets, television is the vehicle of choice for most national campaigns.

In the Midwestern battleground trilogy, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa (a.k.a. Minnewisowa), there are so many electoral votes (27) that either campaign could trade a loss in Pennsylvania (23), Ohio (21) or Florida (25) and come out ahead. Saturation in these states has so far not been through TV, but by the almost incessant personal appearances of Mr. Bush, Vice President Cheney, Sens. Kerry and Edwards, their spouses, their children, partisan celebrities, national political leaders, (and soon, no doubt, the dentists of the candidates testifying to their exemplary and homeland security-promoting dental hygiene).

Minnewisowa went, in each state’s case by small margins, to Mr. Gore in 2000. Mr. Bush either leads, or is close to leading in these states, with about five weeks to go. But the Democrats will not cede Minnewisowa without a fight. Neighboring South Dakota, site of the Little Big Horn, may have a battleground rival more than 100 years after Custer. Minnewisowa may become known as where Mr. Kerry made his last electoral stand.

In many important ways, the three midwestern “heartland” states are very similar. Each has one large metropolitan urban/suburban area (Minneapolis-St. Paul, Milwaukee, Des Moines), and large rural agricultural areas outside them. None were historically heavy manufacturing states, and although their ethnic demographics are now changing, have not had significant ethno-racial variety in the past.

Minnesota has no Senate or gubernatorial election this year, but the GOP’s solid get-out-the-vote effort, first organized in the traumatic 2002 Senate race won by Norm Coleman, has been transposed to the state’s Bush-Cheney campaign. Iowa is where Mr. Kerry should do best, having turned the Democratic nomination contest around there, but the most recent statewide poll shows him trailing the president by six points.

Wisconsin has been close, but the dramatic upset of two GOP rivals by Tim Michels in the U.S. Senate primary last week has suddenly made the challenge to Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold competitive, and could bring out Republican voters to vote for the president as well.

Polls, of course, are particularly undependable this year, and the presidential contest in these three states are probably still very close. Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry could win here, but as happened in 2000, I think all three states will likely vote for the same presidential candidate whoever it will be.

In the supra-atomic regions of American politics, the Constitution has collided with history and technology, and the result is a political super-state called Minnewisowa.

Recently, a group of journalists based in Washington, D.C. and New York toured this area — seeking to better understand this curious 2004 election. More will come. A new political electoral edifice has been built here, and they will come.

Barry Casselman has reported on and analyzed presidential elections since 1972.

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