Mathematically, there is almost no difference between the number of votes that Del. Robert F. McDonnell and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds received in the still up-in-the-air race to be Virginia's next attorney general.
McDonnell got 49.962 percent of the vote; Deeds got 49.945 percent. When you click on the "%" button in Microsoft Excel, the computer rounds each one to 50 percent, and it rounds the difference -- about one-hundredth of 1 percent -- to 0 percent.
But elections in the United States are not about percentages. And they are not about rounding or "almost." They are about absolute numbers. In absolute terms, McDonnell got more votes than Deeds. And that makes him, for now, the winner.
A recount has been requested. But the psychological difference could be seen in the responses from the two men Monday, when the State Board of Elections certified McDonnell as the winner.
In a call with reporters, McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach) sounded relieved and projected a sense -- perhaps not supported entirely by the math -- of certainty. He declared himself confident that his slim lead would hold up and that he will become the state's next top lawyer.
"The landslide jokes are actually starting to get funny now," he said during the conference call, referring to the moniker "Landslide Bob," which has become popular in Republican circles.
McDonnell calls himself the attorney general-elect, and he talks about the 10 policy committees he has set up to deal with the business of running the office. He even refuses to rule out the possibility that he might start the hiring process before the recount is over, so confident of the result is he.
"We are full speed ahead with transition efforts," the Republican said. "I'm looking forward to doing the final things I need to do to be prepared to serve in little more than a month."
Deeds (D-Bath), meanwhile, is exuding a wholly different attitude.
While professing to be focused on the job at hand -- preparing to be the next attorney general -- Deeds betrayed the sense of anxiety and uncertainty that is to be expected from someone whose future is likely to be decided by such a slim margin of votes.
Statistics from past recounts rolled off his tongue: In 1989, he said, 7,000 votes separated Democrat L. Douglas Wilder and Republican J. Marshall Coleman. "Seven thousand votes is 20 times the margin in this race," Deeds said, then again, with emphasis, "Twenty times."
He recalled two House of Delegates races in which one person participated in legislative orientation meetings, only to be replaced later by the opponent because a recount had flipped the results. In one case, Del. James M. Scott (D-Fairfax) won by a single vote, he noted.
"I've intentionally put the recount in other people's hands," Deeds said. "Obviously, it's something I think about because it's my future. I'm getting ready to be attorney general, and we're going forward on this recount."
Deeds might turn out to be right. The numbers are so close that mistakes might be found that turn the victory over to him. But for now, Deeds is the one who sounds emotionally drained, even though he says that he is "not deflated" and that Monday's certification of McDonnell was not a bad day, not a good day, just "a day."
University of Virginia professor Larry J. Sabato likes to say that 323 votes is a tiny number. "But," he added, "go out and try to find them. You won't find that many."
Which, of course, raises a question for Deeds: Could he have done something different, something else to get those votes before Election Day instead of after?
"I went to everything I could. I did everything I could during the campaign," he said. "You can second-guess things all you want. But every action has a reaction. If I had spent more time in X county rather than Y county. . . . But who knows? I think about those things a lot, but it doesn't have much value."
A month hasn't yet passed since Election Day, and so the recent memories flow.
"In modern times, I ran this race from the smallest population base" of any candidate in Virginia history, he said. "I was outspent by at least $1.5 million. There were prominent folks who call themselves Democrats batting against me. And I'm still in the game."
The emotions are obvious, and Deeds acknowledges them. "There is an emotional side to this thing," he said. "I put everything I had into it. There's some emotion involved."