Published January 14, 2015
John Kerry (search) narrowly trails President Bush (search) in the battle for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, as he makes his case at the Democratic National Convention (search) this week to topple the Republican incumbent.
With three months remaining in a volatile campaign, Kerry has 14 states and the District of Columbia in his column for 193 electoral votes. Bush has 25 states for 217 votes, according to an Associated Press analysis of state polls as well as interviews with strategists across the country.
"It's a tough, tough map. I think it's going to be a close race," said Democratic strategist Tad Devine, who helped plot Al Gore's state-by-state strategy in 2000 and plays the same role for Kerry.
"But looking back four years, we're much stronger now. I think we're going into this convention in great shape," he said.
Both candidates are short of the magic 270 electoral votes. The margin of victory will come from:
— TOSSUPS — Bush and Kerry are running even in 11 states with a combined 128 electoral votes. Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Michigan and West Virginia are the toughest battlegrounds. Two other tossups, Pennsylvania and Oregon, could soon move to Kerry's column.
— LEAN KERRY — Maine, Minnesota and Washington (a combined 25 electoral votes) favor Kerry over Bush by a few percentage points. Gore carried them in 2000.
— LEAN BUSH — North Carolina, Colorado, Louisiana, Arizona, Virginia, Arkansas and Missouri (a combined 73 electoral votes) give Bush modest leads. He won all seven in 2000.
All total, 21 states are in play. Some will bounce between "lean" to "tossup" throughout the campaign.
Four years ago, Bush won 30 states and their 271 electoral votes — one more than needed. Gore, who won the popular vote, claimed 20 states plus the District of Columbia for 267 electoral votes.
Since then, reapportionment added electoral votes to states with population gains and took them from states losing people. The result: Bush's states are now worth 278 electoral votes and Gore's are worth just 260.
Even if Kerry consolidates Gore's states, no easy task, the Democrat must take 10 electoral votes from Bush's column to close the electoral vote gap.
Kerry's best prospects may be in the five tossup states won by Bush in 2000: Ohio, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire and West Virginia.
Winning either Ohio's 20 electoral votes or Florida's 27 would do the trick.
Bush easily won Ohio in 2000, but its lagging economy puts the state in play. Kerry must still reduce Bush's advantages among conservative, rural voters. Florida should favor Bush a bit more than in 2000, partly because of its relatively strong economy, but the war in Iraq has helped keep the race close.
Nevada and West Virginia have a combined 10 electoral votes, enough to close the gap. New Hampshire, which neighbors Kerry's home state of Massachusetts, has four.
West Virginia voted Democratic for decades until Bush made values an issue in 2000; Kerry is stressing the theme this year. In Nevada, an influx of Hispanics and the administration's push to use Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste site make the state tougher for Bush than in 2000.
Six of the 11 tossup states were won by Gore: Pennsylvania, Oregon, Michigan, Iowa, New Mexico and Wisconsin. But the margin of victory was just a few thousand votes in Iowa, New Mexico and Wisconsin — meaning Kerry has his work cut out to keep them.
Of the three, Bush likes his chances best in Wisconsin, where he is targeting rural voters in a bid to widen the electoral gap by 10 votes.
Flush with money and leading a united party, Kerry increased his odds by expanding the playing field into a handful of GOP states that Bush easily won in 2000, including Arkansas, Louisiana, Arizona, Virginia and Colorado. Results have been mixed.
After testing the waters, Kerry pulled his ads from Arkansas and Louisiana, and downgraded his focus on Virginia and Arizona. Hispanic voters make Colorado a prime target, but Democrats acknowledge it's a tough state to win.
"The race is still fundamentally tied, and the Electoral College map reflects that," said Bush strategist Matthew Dowd. "But there is beginning to be a slight tilt toward us with Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri and Arizona no longer being seriously contested."
Kerry added another Republican-leaning state to his target list when he chose Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina as his running mate. Aides are divided over whether North Carolina will remain a battleground through November, but its 15 electoral votes are too tempting to ignore.
Missouri, a traditional battleground, recently moved to the Bush-leaning category and is being written off by some Democrats. The Kerry campaign reduced its ad campaign in the state after polls showed him consistently 4 to 6 percentage points behind Bush, with little room for improvement.
Republican advantages in rural Missouri and the fast-growing exurbs make the state tough for Democrats, but Kerry will likely keep it on the table through November in case the political winds shift. Besides, abandoning a traditional battleground would be embarrassing.
The four-term Massachusetts senator has begun to gather strength in traditionally Democratic states such as Maine, Minnesota and Washington. All were tossups in the spring, but now lean toward Kerry. A good convention could push Pennsylvania and Oregon into the lean-Kerry category.
Recent polls give Kerry an edge in both states, but strategists for Kerry and Bush say the races are still tossup.
"There is an angry feeling toward the incumbent because of Iraq," said David Sweet, who managed Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell's 2000 campaign. "I think Kerry will win in the end, but that's partly based on an assumption of things to come. It's close."
Of the states won by Gore, Pennsylvania is by far Bush's top target. The president has spent millions of dollars in the state on commercials and has visited it more than any other contested state — 30 trips since his inauguration.
For Kerry, losing Pennsylvania would create a virtually insurmountable electoral vote gap.