In the 2000 election, Republican George W. Bush won Ohio's 20 electoral votes and beat Democrat Al Gore by only five votes. Another close race is expected in 2004. In most nationwide polls, the percentage of undecided voters exceeds the difference between Bush and Democrat John Kerry. But these national polls generally attempt to forecast the popular vote -- the actual votes cast by individuals on Election Day.
The president of the United States, however, isn't selected directly by the people but by a body known as the Electoral College. Look closely at the election ballot this November: You are asked to select not Kerry or Bush but "Electors for ..." Kerry or Bush. A vote cast for Kerry, for example, is a vote for Democratic electors who are loyal to Kerry.
Each state is allotted as many electors as it has U.S. senators and representatives. There are 538 electors nationwide, and a candidate must win 270 electoral votes to move into the White House. In 48 states, the candidate who wins the popular vote for that state wins all of the electoral votes. In Maine and Nebraska, two electors are chosen by the statewide vote and the rest are chosen within each congressional district.
Due to historical voting records and polling results for the current election cycle, some states -- New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Illinois -- are considered strongly Democrat, while others -- most of the Southern states and most of the non-coastal Western states -- are considered strongly Republican.
But the states garnering most of the candidates' attention are those that have not indicated a strong party preference in recent presidential elections and those for which polls are very close. Political analysts disagree on the number of states still up for grabs, with some listing more than 20 and others listing 10 or so, but Ohio is on everyone's list.
Ohio's status as an important swing state is due partially to the fact that the state isn't firmly tied to either party in presidential elections. In the 26 elections since 1900, Democratic candidates have won the state's electoral votes 10 times and Republicans have won 16 times. In 2000, Bush defeated Gore in Ohio by 165,019 votes, which represents only 3.5 percent of the total votes cast for president in Ohio. Most polls indicate that many of those who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 will not do so in 2004. Based on the ideals and policies of Nader, Bush and Kerry, it is likely that most of Nader's former supporters will vote for Kerry. In 2000, Bush beat the combination of Gore and Nader by only 47,162 votes, or just over 1 percent.
Polls conducted during the current election cycle indicate that the 2004 Ohio vote will be just as close. Of four major polls conducted during June and July, excluding the generally meaningless post-Democratic convention uptick, two show Kerry leading the race and two show Bush ahead. The widest margin is 5 percentage points, with both Kerry and Bush enjoying that lead in separate polls.
In each poll, the percentage of undecided respondents exceeds the difference between Bush and Kerry. On average, Kerry obtains 45.5 percent of respondents' votes and Bush win 45.75 percent, with 6 percent undecided. It can't get much closer than that.
Because Ohio could easily go to either candidate and because a victory here garners 20 electoral votes -- more than any other state still considered up for grabs, except Florida -- Bush and Kerry are waging an all-out war here.
"It's the No. 1 target in the country for the Kerry campaign," says Brendon Cull, spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Coordinated Campaign, the state party's election effort. Cull is taking a break from his job as Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken's spokesman to work on the campaign.
The Bush camp agrees.
"Ohio is very important," says Kevin Madden, spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign. "It is a key swing state."
An analysis of advertising time purchased around the country further demonstrates Ohio's value to Kerry and Bush. Conducted by Nielsen Monitor-Plus and the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project, the analysis revealed that Ohio cities -- Toledo, Dayton, Columbus and Cleveland -- comprised four of the top five media markets for Kerry and Bush since the end of the primary season.
Both candidates are also spending a significant amount of time in Ohio. From the beginning of the campaign season through the end of July, Kerry spent 16 days in Ohio and Bush visited 15 times. More visits are planned by each, according to Cull and Madden.
The battle continues when the candidates are elsewhere. The Kerry campaign now has 27 paid field organizers spread across the state and 40,000 volunteers. This is the earliest that the Democrats have ever had such a network in place for a presidential election, according to Cull. The Bush campaign boasts more than 50,000 volunteers and 15 paid staff, most of whom are headquartered in Columbus.
Ohio has nearly always played a role in presidential elections, and this year appears to be no different. Both Kerry and Bush will spend the next three months wooing the state's sizeable block of undecided voters and making sure that their supporters turn out to vote.
In some states, one of the candidates is often able to use the sitting governor's popularity in this effort. Not in Ohio. In a February 2004 Ohio Poll, which is sponsored by the University of Cincinnati, 43 percent of Ohioans disapprove of Republican Gov. Bob Taft's performance. This is only a slight improvement from Taft's 48 percent disapproval rating in 2003 -- the highest ever recorded by the Ohio Poll in its 21-year history.