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And the Winner Is...

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2004; 8:30 AM

Unless there is an October surprise, campaign 2004 is essentially all over -- except for the voting. So let's have a little fun today looking at presidential indicators in hopes of getting a handle on what will happen one week from today. The goal is to provide you with enough information to make a definitive decision in the office pool on who will be elected president on Nov. 2.

Or maybe not so definitive.

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There are a number of reliable and not so reliable ways to predict who is going to win a presidential election. Among the most reliable is an incumbent president's job approval rating. And here, President Bush is in some dangerous territory. According to Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, five of the past six presidents who have been reelected never saw their approval ratings dip below 50 percent during an election year. The five reelected incumbents were Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. The one who broke the mold was Harry Truman, who triumphed in 1948 despite fairly miserable approval ratings.

Bush's job approval rating has hovered mostly in the high 40s in recent months and now stands right at about 50 percent, according to a roundup by the Real Clear Politics Web site.

"Fifty percent is an arbitrary line," Newport said. "And Bush's job approval is hovering right around there. So he's neither following the path of those who went on to reelection nor of those who lost. He's really in sort of a gray zone."

OK, so that doesn't help.

Pollsters also consider head-to-head national "horse-race" polls an important indicator. Once again, going back to that famous mold-breaker, Truman, all of the incumbents who have been reelected have led their opponents throughout the entire election year in the Gallup poll. Bush has spent a significant portion of the year either in a virtual tie or slightly behind Kerry in the polls.

In case you're wondering what the latest news out of the polls is, Real Clear Politics averaged the most recent tracking polls on Monday and had the race within the margin of error, with Bush at 48.7 and Kerry at 45.8.

Generally speaking, the reason incumbents should be concerned about sub-50 percent approval ratings and matchup numbers is because undecided voters typically break toward the challenger on Election Day. Pollster John Zogby said in one of his recent polls of undecided voters, only 20 percent said Bush deserves to be reelected, and 40 percent said it's time for someone else. Zogby predicted undecided voters would break for Kerry at a rate of two to one. And with anywhere between 4 percent and 6 percent of likely voters still undecided, Bush's numbers indicate he may have a problem.

Zogby notes that Bush has been under 50 percent not only in job approval and the head-to-head matchup, but also in the so-called, "right-track/wrong-track" rating in which Americans are asked their opinion about the direction of the country. Bush's numbers have improved a bit lately, with 48 percent saying the nation is on the right track and 49 percent saying it's on the wrong track.

"The last three presidents with numbers like these all lost," he said, a reference to Ford, Carter and the first president Bush. Actually, all three had worse numbers than this Bush does at this point in his term. But what he shares with them is being fairly consistently under 50 percent in the key indicators – job approval, horse race and direction of the country.

Based on where the polls are right now, taken in historical perspective, Kerry would have the slight edge in winning the popular vote.

But, as 2000 taught us, the winner of the popular vote doesn't always get to be president. The presidential election is really a series of state elections on the same day. So how are the candidates doing in key battlegrounds? Real Clear Politics runs a list of what it considers the 17 closest states. It takes the average of the recent public polls to determine competitiveness. Of those 17 states, Bush led in 12 on Monday. Real Clear Politics gave Bush a 234 to 211 lead over Kerry in Electoral College votes. Ninety-three electoral votes are up for grabs, according to the state-by-state poll averages. A candidate needs 270 to win. The National Journal's Hotline gave Kerry an edge of 243 to 234 on Monday, based on only the most recent individual state polls.

Advantage: None.

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