12:01 a.m. PT: Sigh. I really didn't want to have to write this.
George W. Bush is going to win re-election. Yeah, the lawyers will haggle about Ohio. But this time, Democrats don't have the popular vote on their side. Bush does.
Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.
If you're a Bush supporter, this is no surprise. You love him, so why shouldn't everybody else?
But if you're dissatisfied with Bush—or if, like me, you think he's been the worst president in memory—you have a lot of explaining to do. Why don't a majority of voters agree with us? How has Bush pulled it off?
I think this is the answer: Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.
Bush is a very simple man. You may think that makes him a bad president, as I do, but lots of people don't—and there are more of them than there are of us. If you don't believe me, take a look at those numbers on your TV screen.
Think about the simplicity of everything Bush says and does. He gives the same speech every time. His sentences are short and clear. "Government must do a few things and do them well," he says. True to his word, he has spent his political capital on a few big ideas: tax cuts, terrorism, Iraq. Even his electoral strategy tonight was powerfully simple: Win Florida, win Ohio, and nothing else matters. All those lesser states—Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire—don't matter if Bush reels in the big ones.
This is what so many people like about Bush's approach to terrorism. They forgive his marginal and not-so-marginal screw-ups, because they can see that fundamentally, he "gets it." They forgive his mismanagement of Iraq, because they see that his heart and will are in the right place. And while they may be unhappy about their economic circumstances, they don't hold that against him. What you and I see as unreflectiveness, they see as transparency. They trust him.
Now look at your candidate, John Kerry. What quality has he most lacked? Not courage—he proved that in Vietnam. Not will—he proved that in Iowa. Not brains—he proved that in the debates. What Kerry lacked was simplicity. Bush had one message; Kerry had dozens. Bush had one issue; Kerry had scores. Bush ended his sentences when you expected him to say more; Kerry went on and on, adding one prepositional phrase after another, until nobody could remember what he was talking about. Now Bush has two big states that mean everything, and Kerry has a bunch of little ones that add up to nothing.
If you're a Democrat, here's my advice. Do what the Republicans did in 1998. Get simple. Find a compelling salesman and get him ready to run for president in 2008. Put aside your quibbles about preparation, stature, expertise, nuance, and all that other hyper-sophisticated garbage that caused you to nominate Kerry. You already have legions of people with preparation, stature, expertise, and nuance ready to staff the executive branch of the federal government. You don't need one of them to be president. You just need somebody to win the White House and appoint them to his administration. And that will require all the simplicity, salesmanship, and easygoing humanity they don't have.
The good news is, that person is already available. His name is John Edwards. If you have any doubt about his electability, just read the exit polls from the 2004 Democratic primaries. If you don't think he's ready to be president—if you don't think he has the right credentials, the right gravitas, the right subtlety of thought—ask yourself whether these are the same things you find wanting in George W. Bush. Because evidently a majority of the voting population of the United States doesn't share your concern. They seem to be attracted to a candidate with a simple message, a clear focus, and a human touch. You might want to consider their views, since they're the ones who will decide whether you're sitting here again four years from now, wondering what went wrong.
In 1998 and 1999, Republicans cleared the field for George W. Bush. Members of Congress and other major officeholders threw their weight behind him to make sure he got the nomination. They united because their previous presidential nominee, a clumsy veteran senator, had gone down to defeat. They were facing eight years out of power, and they were hungry.
Do what they did. Give Edwards a job that will position him to run for president again in a couple of years. Clear the field of Hillary Clinton and any other well-meaning liberal who can't connect with people outside those islands of blue on your electoral map. Because you're going to get a simple president again next time, whether you like it or not. The only question is whether that president will be from your party or the other one.
9:33 p.m. PT: That proviso about the exit polls matching the returns is looking quite a bit more important now than it did three hours ago. Bush has Florida and Colorado in the bag. All scenarios for a Kerry victory now require Ohio.
Kerry led 51-49 in the Ohio exit poll this afternoon. But he also led 51-49 in the Florida exit poll, and we've seen what happened there. Nationwide, the exit polls had Kerry up 51-48. But with 80 million votes counted already, it's Bush who has a 51-48 lead. So at this point, the exit polls are at best meaningless. Or worse, if you're a Democrat, the six-point gap between what the exit polls predicted for Kerry nationally and what the returns show so far means that in Ohio, a two-point lead for Kerry in the exit poll foreshadows a Bush win by as many as four points.
In New Mexico, two-thirds of the precincts have reported, and it doesn't look good for Kerry: He's down 51-48. So even if he takes Iowa, where he's now leading with two-thirds of the vote tallied, he'll have to win either Nevada, which has just begun counting, or Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, he's hanging on to a 14,000-vote lead—that's a single percentage point—with half the precincts reporting. If Kerry holds that lead in Wisconsin and closes what is now a 120,000-vote Bush lead in Ohio, he's the next president. Or if he holds his lead in Iowa and picks off Nevada, he can get the same result—but not without Ohio.
Three-quarters of the precincts in Ohio have now reported, and Kerry still trails by 126,000 votes, about 3 percent of the total. I don't think he can pull it off. But I've been wrong so many times now that I'd be happy—no, really, in this case I would be positively delighted—to be proved wrong again.
7:38 p.m. PT: I should have mentioned before that if Bush wins both Ohio and Florida, he needs only Colorado to get to 269. So that's just two states where he needs the exit polls to be off. But in both cases the error has to be at least two points, in each case it has to be in his direction, and the Colorado exit poll can't be off in the other direction.
Let's simplify the calculations. Bush starts with a floor of 213. He leads by one point in the exit poll in Colorado, so let's assume he takes that state, putting him at 222.
Here are the remaining states in which Bush trails in the exit polls by fewer than 6 points: Nevada (Bush down 1), Iowa (Bush down 1), Florida (Bush down 2), Ohio (Bush down 2), New Mexico (Bush down 2), and Wisconsin (Bush down 3).
That's it. Those are all the states Bush has to work with.
If he wins them all, he gets to 296. So Kerry can lock up the election by taking any 28 electoral votes from that group. Here are the combinations that will do the job for Kerry:
1) Florida and any other state.
2) Ohio and Wisconsin.
3) Ohio and any two of the little three: Nevada, New Mexico, and Iowa.
Two other variables could be in play. If Kerry takes Colorado, he can wrap up the election by taking a combination of Wisconsin and two of the little three. He won't have to win Ohio or Florida. But if Bush stages an upset in Hawaii, Kerry will have to take one of the little three in addition to Ohio and Wisconsin—or he'll have to take Ohio, Iowa, and either Nevada or New Mexico.
Those are the scenarios for now. I'll revisit them as the returns come in and the options narrow.
6:08 p.m. PT: We can't be sure how far tonight's returns will ultimately vary from the late-afternoon exit-poll numbers (see this "Press Box"). But with that understood, let's talk about what the numbers mean, if true, for the electoral map.
Bush gets to 189 electoral votes with no problem. Assuming he takes Virginia, he's at 202. With Missouri, where he's 5 points up in the exit polls, he's at 213. Now he needs Colorado. I never took this state seriously as a problem for him, but the afternoon numbers suggest it might be: He's up just a point there. Let's assume he takes it. Now he's at 222.
At this point, he has run out of states where he's leading in the exit polls, and he's still looking for a combination of 47 electoral votes to get him to 269. (He wins in the House if it's a tie.) The next best shots are Nevada and Iowa, where he's down a point. Let's say he takes them, too. Now he's at 234, still 35 electoral votes away—and he has run out of states where he's trailing by a single point. He'll have to start winning in places where he's trailing by two.
How about New Mexico? Let's give him that. Now he's at 239, but that's still not enough to win the election even if Florida comes around. He'll have to capture the other state where he's down two in the exit polls: Ohio. It seems a bit unfair, making him win a state with 20 electoral votes just to get the three he needs for a tie. Wouldn't it be easier to package Florida or Ohio with Wisconsin? Either combination gets him to 269 or beyond, so let's try that. Colorado plus Nevada plus Iowa plus New Mexico plus Wisconsin plus either Ohio or Florida.
For those of you doing the math at home, that's a Bush sweep of five states where the exit polls have him trailing, without losing a single state in which he leads. In three of those states, Bush's winning scenario requires the exit polls to be at least two points off. In Wisconsin, it requires the exit polls to be at least three points off.
And it gets uglier from there. Because if even one of these breaks doesn't go Bush's way, there is no remaining state on the board in which he trails by less than six in the exit polls. Bush can win this thing, but he'll need a lot of luck. More than he'll get, if you ask me.