As I write (at 5 a.m. Wednesday), it is obvious that President George W. Bush has been reelected. The squadrons of Democratic lawyers in Ohio may be itching to contest Bush's victory in that state, but he is ahead by 125,000 votes, and that is not going to be overturned by provisional ballots which, as Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell has pointed out, are not concentrated in central city Cleveland but spread all over the state. Gerald Ford could have been elected to a full term as president in 1976 if he had overturned Jimmy Carter's 11,116-vote margin in Ohio and his 7,372-vote margin in Hawaii. A 9,244-vote reversal could have kept Ford in office. But Ford didn't even try. He trailed Carter by 1.68 million in the popular vote and had no stomach for contention and for the tactic of delegitimatizing American election results for personal victory.
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John Kerry, as was hinted at by John Edwards's astonishingly brief statement to Kerry supporters in Copley Square, Boston, on election night, may feel differently. Kerry lawyers are lined up to challenge election results in OhioFlorida is too strongly for Bush this time for this to work. But Ohio's margin for Bush, as this is written, is about 125,000 votes. Kerry's lawyers will have to argue that almost every one of Ohio's provisional voteschallenged, and set asidewould go for him. But as Blackwell pointed out, that is exceedingly improbable. Provisional votes are not concentrated totally in central city Cleveland. They are cast, also, by Amish voters in Holmes and Coshocton Counties. They are not going to produce a 126,000-vote margin for Kerry, under any stretch of the imagination. Democrats are primed psychologically to challenge anything. But my guess is that Kerry's Democratic election lawyers, many of them cool professionals who have been through many things, will advise him that he is on a loser's errand. And that challenging an election where he has lost the popular vote nationally by some 2.5 million votes and can only win by horrendous legerdemain will do him and his party horrifying damage.
The results as called by Fox News, for whom I worked on election night, showed 269 votes for Bush. This is at worst an electoral vote tie, which would be broken for the Republicans by the House of Representatives. Republicans entered the race with 30 state delegations, a number which evidently was reduced to 29 by Phil Crane's loss in Illinois but increased back to 30 by Republicans' wins in the redistricted seats in Texas. On top of that, three of the four states uncalled by Fox have Bush popular vote majorities: Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico. And Wisconsin is not out of reach. Any one of these would give Bush his 270th electoral vote. The election is over.
Why were the initial exit poll results more Democratic than the actual tabulated vote? No one is sure, though the national sample at midafternoon, which showed Kerry ahead 50 to 49 percent, was 58 percent women. My own suspicion is that some Democratsat the command level, or somewhere belowhad an election-day project of slamming the results. New Hampshire, Minnesota and Pennsylvania initial exit poll results had huge margins for Kerrymuch larger percentages than he won in any pre-election poll. If somebody had slipped some Democratic operative the list of exit poll sites40 to 50 sites in each critical statehe or she could have slipped several hundred operatives into the polling places to take the exit poll ballots and vote for Kerry. The results would have shown Kerry much farther ahead than he actually was and, broadcast through drugdereport.com and other sources, could have heartened Kerry supporters during the afternoon and disheartened Bush supporters. When I was active in Democratic politics, in 1964-80, it would have occurred to us to do no such thing. But Democrats these days are so filled with a sense of grievance and with a feeling of justification for employing any dirty tactics to win, that this is not unthinkable. If people can game the exit polls, there's not much point to having exit polls any more.