We won't know who wins the presidential race until the wee hours of November 3 — and we might not know even then. But throughout the night, we'll be getting clues about who's doing well, and how politics will change in the years ahead. Here are seven telling items to keep an eye on.
Bush's must-win state. The President has looked stronger here than in the Midwestern battlegrounds. His brother Jeb, the governor, is popular, particularly with Hispanics, a growing Sunshine State constituency. With Jeb's help, the President got high marks for his response to Florida's hurricanes. And he has made inroads with Jewish voters, a traditionally Democratic group in the southern part of the state. If Bush loses Florida despite all this, he'll probably lose other key swing states — and lose the election.
Kerry's must-win state. Republicans have been worried about the Buckeye State all year. Al Gore gave up on it in 2000 and still came close. Ohio has been hit hard by the weak economy and, in a reverse of Florida, its Republican governor is very unpopular, which could rub off on the president. Labor unions and other Democratic groups have poured money and organizers into the state, and Kerry recently went hunting there in an attempt to appeal to Republican-leaning rural voters. Democrats have bet the farm on Ohio — if they lose it, they could lose nearby states like Wisconsin and Iowa, where voters are aren't hurting as much economically. If that happens, Bush wins.
3. Southwestern Hispanics
Democrats think that as Hispanics become a larger percentage of the electorate in the Southwest, they have a chance of picking up states in this traditionally Republican region. Gore barely won New Mexico in 2000, the state with the largest proportion of Hispanics, and Kerry should win there. But the big news would be if Kerry picked up Nevada or Colorado, states Bush won in 2000, but where Kerry has run better than expected. The Democratic Senate candidate in Colorado, Ken Salazar, is Hispanic, and the Kerry campaign hopes he'll draw Hispanics to the polls. Watch to see if there's a big jump in turnout among Southwestern Hispanics. If there is, Kerry could steal a victory in Bush country.
4. Elderly Women
Kerry can't win unless he decisively defeats Bush among women voters. One group that has caused him trouble is older women, who tend to be culturally conservative and haven't warmed to Kerry, who sounds awkward talking about his religious faith. Kerry has tried to win them over by charging that Bush would threaten Social Security, a big issue among seniors. If Kerry can't bring them to his side, he'll have trouble in Florida and Pennsylvania, both states with larger than average elderly populations.
5. Gay Marriage
Republicans have put amendments banning gay marriage on the ballot in many swing states, hoping to draw Christian conservative voters to the polls. If these amendments win big, it will give Bush a boost. It will also boost the anti-gay marriage movement in Washington, and embolden Republicans to keep pushing for an anti-gay marriage amendment to the Constitution. But in states like Ohio, where the amendment is so broad it would ban even civil unions, some Republicans — including the state's governor — are opposed. If some of the anti-gay marriage amendments are defeated, future Republican candidates may shy away from the issue.
6. Tom Daschle
Republicans are gunning for the Senate Democratic leader, who represents South Dakota, a state where Bush should win big. If Daschle goes down, he will be the first Senate leader to lose his seat in decades, and it will be a huge psychological blow to the Democrats. His opponent, former Congressman John Thune, lost to South Dakota's other Democratic Senator in 2002 by only 527 votes. If Thune wins, the Republicans will almost certainly hold the Senate, and Democrats in Washington will be in disarray.
Polls show Kerry leading among young voters. They also show that young voters care more about this election than any in recent memory. People 18-29 typically vote less than any other age group. And many pollsters factor that assumption into their models of likely voters — which is one reason most polls show Bush with a slight lead. If young people prove the pollsters wrong, and turn out at rates close to their parents, it would not only be a good night for our democracy, but could also help John Kerry.
— Peter Beinart
Beinart is the editor of The New Republic.