Election 2004: The endgame

Bin Laden delivered the October surprise. The voters are ready. The lawyers are, too. And the world is agog. Rupert Cornwell in Ohio takes the pulse of America in the first of our special reports
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The Independent US

Just maybe, in an America split into almost exactly equal political halves, this is the place to be: the bellwether county in a bellwether state in this riveting, desperately close presidential election thrown into even greater uncertainty by the taunting video message from the country's most loathed enemy. As Canton and Stark County vote, it is said, so votes Ohio. And only twice in the past century has Ohio got it wrong. So the poll in Canton's delightfully named newspaper The Repository (of truth, one presumes) was of particular interest. Interest, alas, was not matched by enlightenment.

Just maybe, in an America split into almost exactly equal political halves, this is the place to be: the bellwether county in a bellwether state in this riveting, desperately close presidential election thrown into even greater uncertainty by the taunting video message from the country's most loathed enemy. As Canton and Stark County vote, it is said, so votes Ohio. And only twice in the past century has Ohio got it wrong. So the poll in Canton's delightfully named newspaper The Repository (of truth, one presumes) was of particular interest. Interest, alas, was not matched by enlightenment.

Naturally, the good citizens of Stark County as well are split right down the middle. For what it is worth, John Kerry had 47 per cent and George Bush 46 per cent, well within the statistical margin of error - or "margin of litigation" as Ohio's secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, likes to put it, referring to the armies of lawyers who are already conducting their first skirmishes, in Ohio and across the country. And now Osama bin Laden's contribution - the "October surprise" that could yet tilt the struggle on the campaign's final weekend.

On a golden Midwestern autumn afternoon last week, in the rolling countryside outside Canton, evidence of the division was everywhere, right down to competing Bush and Kerry signs on the same leaf-flecked front lawn.

"We're a cross-section of America," says Charita Goshay, a columnist at The Repository. "We've got town and country, industry and agriculture, liberals and conservatives, different income groups and different races." The 2000 US election was close, yet Tuesday's result could be closer still.

The independent candidate Ralph Nader will be lucky to win 1 per cent of the vote, compared with 2.7 per cent four years ago. But with Ohio and half a dozen other swing states split almost exactly in two, even a few thousand Nader votes might make the difference.

If the states break exactly as they did four years ago, Mr Bush would win the electoral vote by 278 to 260 - a considerably wider margin than his 271-267 vote victory, thanks to adjustments in congressional districts to take account of population changes in the 2000 census, and a new weighting of individual states in the electoral college. But if just West Virginia and New Hampshire, two small states which the President carried in 2000, changed sides, the outcome would be a 269-269 tie.

And that is only the start of it. In this hardest of elections to call, The Washington Post has calculated no fewer than 33 different, yet perfectly plausible, voting scenarios to produce deadlock in the electoral college. If so, Mr Blackwell's "margin of litigation" would become a "margin for chaos", with the election being thrown to the House of Representatives and intense pressure on individual state-appointed members of the electoral college to switch sides.

A few weeks ago, of course, such talk seemed purely academic. Mr Bush swept out of his convention in New York with a double-digit lead in the polls, while the Kerry campaign seemed rudderless. The candidate lacked a clear message and was failing to connect on a human level with ordinary voters. The President looked to be gliding towards a second term.

The presidential debates, however, transformed the picture. By common consent, Mr Kerry won all three. They attracted a combined 160 million viewers, who saw the challenger looking more presidential and possessing a deeper command of the issues than the man who actually sat in the Oval Office. Democrats were galvanised, and the race tightened into a statistical dead heat.

Mr Bush may be ahead by two or three points on the national level. But picking the winners of Ohio and other swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa this weekend is like a blind man throwing darts at a dart board. Mr Bush has not put his opponent away - but neither has Mr Kerry managed to convince Americans that he would do a better job.

If that were not enough, the pollsters themselves admit to special problems this year. Their surveys miss entirely that section of the population, particularly younger voters, who only use mobile phones. The prospect of an exceptionally high turnout, moreover, muddies that crucial distinction pollsters usually draw between registered voters and likely voters.

In Ohio alone, 500,000 new voters - an 8 per cent increase on 2000 - have registered. Curtis Gans, head of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, thinks 118 million to 121 million Americans will vote this time, compared with 106 million four years ago. Finally, up to 20 per cent of all votes may already have been cast even before the polling stations open on Tuesday, beyond the reach of anything the candidates have said or done in the final days of the campaign.

This election may not have been the nastiest in recent history - nothing has quite matched for unpleasantness the blatantly racist ads that George Bush Snr used against Michael Dukakis in 1988 (though the Swift Boats veterans who questioned John Kerry's valour in Vietnam came close). But never has there been a greater risk of legal chaos.

Ohio again is a perfect case in point. Mr Blackwell, a Republican, incurred the wrath of Democrats by trying to clamp down on "provisional ballots" cast by new residents and voters whose names do not appear on the electoral roll, and by supporting polling station challenges against 35,000 Ohio voters whose registrations look suspect.

Democrats said the moves were blatant attempts to intimidate voters, especially in precincts with large black populations, and promised challenges of their own. On Friday afternoon Mr Blackwell relented, urging both sides to drop their challenges. But if the legal temperature has dropped a degree or two in Ohio, it is still close to boiling point elsewhere, notably Florida.

No wonder many senior Democrats and Republicans privately echo the view of Mr Gans: "I am praying that we have a clear victor on election night. I don't care who. Otherwise Florida 2000 will look like a picnic." But the passions are understandable. Has there ever been an election where so much is at stake? There is the small matter of Iraq and the entire Bush doctrine of unprovoked preventive war, the re-emergent Bin Laden and the global struggle against terrorism, the growing threat of nuclear proliferation and the estrangement of the US from old allies in Europe and elsewhere. Never has the world watched an American election with such apprehension. Never has much of it so ardently yearned for an incumbent's defeat.

And that's just the foreign policy part. In domestic terms, too, the next presidency could be pivotal. Whoever wins will appoint two, maybe three, new justices to the nine-member Supreme Court. The court, rather than Congress where gridlock is the norm, is the place where the battles in America's raging culture wars are won and lost. Currently conservatives hold a fragile 5-4 majority (as its ruling that handed the 2000 election to Mr Bush indicates). A Kerry presidency could give the court a liberal imprint for a decade or more; a revamped Bush court would be the most right-wing in generations.

Finally, there is America's gathering economic crisis - the increasing trade and budget deficits, soaring healthcare costs, and the looming entitlements crunch as the baby boomer generation starts to retire, with demands that will break the US social security bank if nothing is done.

These are momentous issues, and both parties have spent vast sums to get their views across. The presidential election alone has cost more than $2bn (£1.1bn), and the separate elections of 17 state governors, 34 senators and all 435 members of the House of Representatives as much again. As part of the Cleveland media market, Canton and Stark County alone have been bombarded by $40m-worth of TV spots. Not surprisingly Ohioans and the inhabitants of every swing state yearn above all for one thing: the blissful return on 3 November to normality on the airwaves.

These final days will be decisive. The conventional wisdom had been that in a divided country where everyone had long since chosen their side of the political barricades, victory would go to the party that better mobilised its base. Could Republicans bring to the polls a good portion of the "missing four million" Christian evangelicals who, according to Karl Rove, Mr Bush's master of the black political arts, went missing in 2000? Conversely, could the Democrats persuade their natural constituencies of blacks, the poor and the young to vote in greater numbers? To both questions the answer seems to be yes. Quite possibly, therefore, the competing get-out-the-vote drives have largely cancelled each other out.

Last night both Mr Kerry and Mr Bush even appeared on Sabado Gigante, the top-rated programme on the Spanish-language Univision network, in pursuit of the Hispanic vote. There, too, their efforts may have left matters where they stood before.

In truth the endgame of this campaign hinges on a political species long believed almost extinct: the undecided voter. According to The Repository, they account for 6 per cent of likely voters in Stark County, Ohio, and probably a similar proportion of the national electorate. Amazing but true, even in this polarised country, a few people have not made up their minds. They are unhappy at how and where Mr Bush has led the country but unimpressed by Mr Kerry's aloof style and his constant changes of mind.

A rule of thumb in American elections is that the "nicer guy" usually gets elected. On that score, Mr Bush wins, as Bill Clinton, his own father, and Ronald Reagan won before him. As Bill Schneider of CNN and the American Enterprise Institute think-tank puts it: "The presidential vote is the most personal an American makes. He's choosing the candidate he would prefer on the TV screen in his living room for the next four years." For that reason Ohio witnessed surely the most fatuous photo-op of the campaign thus far, as Mr Kerry dressed up in camouflage fatigues to shoot wild geese early one morning recently. It was a sop to gun-owners in rural America, to be sure - but also an attempt to prove that this well-connected Bostonian was a regular guy you could share a few beers with.

And in Ohio as in every battleground state, even a few hundred votes from reassured huntsmen could make the difference. To an uncanny extent, this election mirrors that of 2000. Like Al Gore, the Massachusetts Senator is sure to win what sociologists have dubbed "metro" America, consisting of the North-east, the West Coast and Illinois, dominated by Chicago.

Just as four years ago, Mr Bush will carry "retro" America - the bible belt, the old South, and most if not all of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states. That leaves a dozen or so states, among them Ohio, where the two Americas collide. In normal years, the undecided usually break at the last moment for the challenger. But this year is not normal. For the first time an election is being held under the shadow of terrorism, and not since 1972 have Americans voted when the country is at war. No one is sure which way they will go.

At least until Friday evening, the momentum generated by what Harold Macmillan wearily called "events, dear boy, events" seemed to be helping Mr Kerry. The tale of the 380 tons of missing high explosive in Iraq, and news of an FBI probe into Pentagon procurement contracts won by Dick Cheney's old company Halliburton, fed into his arguments that the post-war occupation had been bungled by an administration where cronyism is rife.

But then came the Osama bin Laden video, turning everyone's mind back to the trauma of 9/11. Possibly, the sight of the al-Qa'ida leader, looking alive and very well, will hurt Mr Bush, reminding Americans that for all his swagger and bravado, the President has failed to capture America's public enemy No 1.

More likely, however, it will help the Bush cause by playing into his strongest re-election asset: the perception by voters that he is more likely to keep the country safe than Mr Kerry. The New York Times and The Washington Post leaned to the view that the beneficiary would be Mr Bush, if only because Americans would not allow the mocking of their President by Bin Laden to go unanswered. But then again, voters may yet haughtily ignore this blatant foreign interference into US domestic policies.

And even the video may not be the last "October surprise". In Iraq, where eight US marines died yesterday, a bloody battle for Fallujah may be about to begin, with unpredictable effects on the final stages of the campaign. In short, no one can be sure of anything - in Canton or anywhere else. "This is wide open. I've never seen anything like this before," said Ms Goshay.

She was speaking before the author of the 9/11 terrorist attacks injected himself into proceedings, but her words are as true now - not only about her homely, uncannily representative corner of Ohio, but about all America as well.