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Another close contest?
Faculty consider the forces that could tip the 2004 presidential race

By Joan Slattery Wall

Alonzo Hamby will cast his vote in this fall's presidential election from the Netherlands - but that doesn't mean he'll be watching the action from a back seat.

Electoral college mapThe distinguished professor of history will be teaching American history as a visiting professor at Leiden University. He expects to be called upon often to share his views on an election that's sure to be closely monitored not only in the United States but abroad.

In a race that as of late summer appeared to be headed toward a close finish (and right on the heels of the 2000 Bush-Gore nail-biter), Hamby wonders if the nation is on the verge of a return to a trend that surfaced in the late 19th century, when the 1876, 1880, 1884 and 1888 elections all had tight margins.

"I don't think this is anything to look forward to," says Hamby, a specialist in 20th-century American political history who has written several books on the presidency from the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt forward.

Tight races add to contention in the nation, Hamby says. "When a country is so bitterly divided, it isn't good."

That environment, Hamby and other Ohio University faculty members speculate, is fueling the hot topics of this year's election: the economy; cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage; turnover in the U.S. Supreme Court; and, perhaps most notably, war and foreign policy. President Bush defends his time in the Oval Office by pointing out successes in the war on terror, while Democratic challenger John Kerry, a four-term U.S. senator, contends he's the one who could better manage foreign policy.

"If you took the war out of it and we were at peace, I think this would really be a hum-drum sleeper," Hamby says. "What would Bush and Kerry be arguing about?"

Barry Tadlock, an assistant professor of political science who teaches a course on the American presidency, says Bush clearly was campaigning as a war-time president in the months leading up to summer's political conventions. "That's a good idea because for Americans, even if it's an unpopular war, the inclination is to rally around the president, to trust him as much as they can," Tadlock says.

In this election, however, the war in Iraq is as much of a divisive force as a unifying one. Voters on both sides of the issue are passionate in their views.

"This campaign began with greater enthusiasm than any campaign we've seen in many years," says Michael Burton, an assistant professor of political science who has published books on campaign management and who served as then-Vice President Al Gore's assistant political director and special assistant to the chief of staff from 1993 to 1998. "The electorate has been intensely polarized and intensely energized. For those who are looking for an explanation as to the negative nature of the campaign, it can be traced in large part to the very thing we look for in campaigns, and that is the enthusiasm of the voters."

Kerry's opponents claim he doesn't have enough experience in government management to lead the country. His selection of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as his running mate intrigued Alfred Eckes, an Ohio Eminent Research Professor in the University's Contemporary History Institute.

"The Kerry-Edwards ticket is historically unusual - two sitting senators on the ticket together," says Eckes, a Reagan nominee to the U.S. International Trade Commission who served from 1981 to 1990 and has written several books on foreign and domestic trade.

It wasn't until after World War II, Eckes says, that voters started to look for a president with international experience, a factor that benefited senators. Previously, governors often claimed spots on the ballot because they had administrative experience.

Playing by the numbers

Professor Alfred Eckes has developed some theories to predict election outcomes.

"There are always crazy professors with crazy models," he says, "and mine is the looniest of all."

The statistics represent too small a sample for any proof, but Eckes might be onto something. If so, the odds favor President Bush. If you group election years by the numbers they end in - 0, 2, 4, 6 and 8 - and plot instances when sitting presidents' parties lost, the defeats occurred most often in years ending in a 0 or a 2. Look at Ronald Reagan in 1980, JFK in 1960, FDR in 1932 and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. The 4's might be lucky for incumbents: Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, FDR in 1944, LBJ in 1964 and Reagan in 1984 are among those winners.

"The striking thing is there have been relatively few turnovers in years ending in 4, with none in the 20th century," Eckes says. "But that doesn't say there won't be one in the first election of the 21st century in a year ending in 4."

The issue of national leadership will join jobs, social issues and foreign policy in driving voters to the polls, Eckes says.

"Who do they have confidence in? Who do they think is most competent to carry on the office in the current conditions?" Eckes asks about voters. "Apparently Bush has some difficulties at the moment (mid-summer); whether he will have them in the autumn is anybody's guess. Kerry hasn't really made a case to mainstream voters. Ads seem to show him flipflopping."

One factor beyond either candidate's control is the one nobody wants to think about.

"The wildcard in all of this," Eckes says, "is domestic terrorism." He points to the Madrid train bombing just days before Spain's last general election, which was widely viewed as propelling the opposition party into power.

Outside the United States' boundaries, the election's strong foreign policy focus has drawn the world's attention.

"Abroad, the press and local leadership and the business community are constantly wondering: What will a change of leadership in America mean for my country?" Eckes says.

Parama Senghosh, an assistant professor of political science and international relations at the University of Calcutta in India, says issues such as the outsourcing of jobs and tougher regulations on U.S. visas are making relations between the United States and her country tense. She was at Ohio University during the past academic year as a visiting faculty member, teaching a Current World Problems class and conducting post-doctoral research on media coverage of culture-induced conflicts.

"The concept of U.S. military unipolarity so strongly espoused by George W. Bush could be jolted if Kerry wins. Kerry could be more Euro-centric and would salvage relations with the USA's Cold War allies, mainly the EU (European Union), China and Japan, specifically to bolster America's trade relations," Senghosh says.

"It is yet unclear as to how Kerry, if elected, would handle terrorism," she adds. "That might indirectly affect, either positively or negatively, South Asian relations with the U.S."

Regardless of international opinion or national voter turnout, Ohio University sits in the middle of the action as eyes turn toward the battleground state of Ohio for clues to the election's conclusion.

No Republican has been elected president without winning Ohio, and Franklin D. Roosevelt (in 1944) and Kennedy are the only Democrats to enter the Oval Office without a majority of Ohioans' support, Eckes points out. The state's demographics and diversity in economy and ethnicity might offer clues as to why it is such a barometer. The candidates apparently put stock in Ohio's historical significance by making repeated visits here or by arming their ballot with candidates from the state.

 "From roughly the Civil War up to about 1920," Eckes says, "there was seldom an election in which an Ohioan was not either running for president or vice president."

On an even more focused level, Tadlock says, Ohio's Stark County voters might be the ones with the inside track. "In the entire 20th century, the 1976 election was the only one in which they were wrong," Tadlock says.

Hamby predicts that while this year's outcome won't match the sliver of a margin seen in 2000, it still will be very close.

"If I'm wrong about that, it will be for the good, because you'll have a president who looks like he has at least a mandate to govern," he says. "Any president feels more comfortable going into a term if he's won by a detectable majority rather than a handful of votes in the Electoral College."


Joan Slattery Wall served until recently as assistant editor of Ohio Today. This article appeared in the magazine's fall 2004 edition.

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