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The Big Question: What swings elections?

Updated Wednesday, 1st December 2004

What happens when candidates run neck and neck in the opinion polls? The Big Question looked at the 2004 US Presidential Elections and asked "What swings elections?"

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President Bush: Benefitting from the swing Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

In US presential elections, the outcome can be decided by just a handful of the 50 states - known as undecided or swing states (states that saw a very close vote in the last election four years ago) like Ohio, Pennsylvania and the prize state of Florida - the fourth largest in the country and the largest of the swing states.

So, just how important is one state in deciding the outcome of the world's most important election?

It was the result in Florida that decided the 2000 election. Following the controversy over the Florida ballot forms, it took the intervention of the US Supreme Court to confirm George Bush as the winner by the narrowest of margins - 537 votes.

Some argue that this time the voting process itself could be a major swing factor. Early voting has already started in Florida - the first time electronic voting has been used in a presidential election. There have already been concerns expressed over the levels of transparency in evoting because it leaves no paper record of votes cast.

So, just how big a difference will electronic voting make and will it lead to a fairer process?

Lida Rodriguez Tassef "The perception of the machine will definitely swing this election," said Lida Rodriguez Tassef in 2004, head of the Miami Dade Election Reform Coalition, which is scrutinising these changes to the voting process. "People will either be motivated to vote or not vote based on their perception of whether the technology is going to disenfranchise them." She said groups like hers need to keep up the pressure on the authorities to ensure that every vote is counted.

Another factor that could swing the election is the makeup and number of those who actually cast their vote.

In the 2000 election many African Americans didn't vote - some because they chose not to; others say either they were kept away from the polls altogether or, once they arrived, they encountered too many obstacles at the polling station.

Adious Woods "We need to get the minorities to register to vote," says Adious Woods who has taken time off from his job to spend time encouraging Floridians to register to vote - especially African Americans and Hispanics. "Their voice needs to be heard."

More than 75% of African Americans who voted in 2000 went for the Democratic Party. The Democrats hope the lingering resentment will lead to a larger black turnout this time round.

Mack King Carter "I think many blacks will vote against Mr Bush, principally because of the war in Iraq. We are still confused as to what the issue was," says Reverend Mack King Carter, one of the most influential black pastors in Florida. But he has a word of warning for the Democrats. "I don't think black people en masse feel as close to John Kerry as much as they may not care for Mr Bush…"

One of the key things, says political analyst, Dario Moreno , from Florida International University's Metropolitan Center in Miami, is the political power wielded by relatively small voting blocs - for example, the growing Hispanic vote favours the Republicans.

In 2000, Florida's Cuban American community - less than 1 in 10 of the state's total population - voted overwhelmingly Republican. Some commentators believe the size of the vote was swelled by the Elian Gonzalez case's influence , but Cuban American's ties with the Republican Party date back to 1980 when Cubans looked to their new President, Ronald Reagan , to be tough on Cuba's communist regime.

This time round, says Dario Moreno, the polls show that in Florida the two main candidates are much closer. "The Cuban American vote is about eight percent of the state total electorate. A shift of one half of one percent in that vote is a shift of 24,000 - enough to shift a tight election."

And, he says, this time the Republican Party of Florida is looking to another key minority group - the Jewish community who, since the time of Franklin Roosevelt , have tended to favour the Florida Democrats . The Republicans are hoping that the President Bush's support for Israel's Prime Minister will translate into votes for him.

Peter Liebowitz, a 73 year-old resident of Boca Raton has voted Democrat all his life. Not this time, he says. The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon "has stated and so have many of the leading Jewish people in this country that George W Bush is the best friend Israel has ever, ever, ever had.." And what's more… "He has streetsmarts, he has great instincts… Yes, he's a Texan and he's cocky but that's my kind of guy."

Those intangible factors to do with Bush's personal appeal as a person seem to be favouring the President - even after most polls indicated that Senator Kerry 'won' the televised debates. The same polls show that when asked which of the two candidates they find more approachable or simply like more - people tend to choose Mr. Bush.

Update: The Results of the 2004 election ran in President Bush's favour. He achieved 286 of the electoral college votes to Senator Kerry's 252. In the swing state of Florida, 52.1% of the recorded votes expressed a preference for the President. The crucial state in the 2004 election was Ohio, which eventually reported a 51% vote for President Bush.

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 30th October 2004

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