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It's the turnout, not the economy

Voters waited in line for about two hours in a steady rainfall in Columbus, Ohio.
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CNN's Bill Schneider says three major issues were key for voters at the polls today.

Early reports show a record turnout at the polls today in Cleveland, Ohio.
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America Votes 2004

(CNN) -- In the end, it won't be Iraq, Osama bin Laden or the deficit that will determine the 2004 presidential election. Pundit after pundit and analyst after analyst agree it will rest on the "T" word. That's turnout, not taxes.

Many states, even those not considered "battleground," report significant increases in early voting and in new registered voters. And in a recent CNN poll, about 75 percent of respondents indicated today's election was the most important in their lifetime.

The coupling of those facts lead many to believe that this election could set a record for voter participation, which has been lagging since 1960 when turnout was nearly 65 percent. And for the last 32 years, turnout in presidential elections has stagnated in the mid-50 percent range. (Special Report: America Votes 2004)

Today could change that.

"The bigger story is the new voters who may come in," said CNN political analyst Carlos Watson. "Last time we had 105 million people vote. Some say we will have 115, maybe 120 million people vote. Registration has shot up in a number of states - 5 percent in Ohio, 7 percent in Pennsylvania. A lot of new people will be at the polls."

CNN's political analyst Bill Schneider reports that in 1996, a little more than 67 percent of voters said they planned to cast ballots. In 2000, 70 percent reported they'd go to the polls. But this year, 86 percent said they would participate in the election. And Schneider said that recent estimates place voter registration at its highest level in 40 years.

The secretary of state said 95 percent of eligible Iowans are registered in that battleground state. Between 2000 and 2004, voter registration increased by 7 percent to 2.1 million people.

And like many of the other swing states, the number of newly registered voters who classify themselves as either Democrat or Republican is only a few percentage points apart. In Iowa, 31 percent identified themselves as GOP supporters, and 30 percent said they belong to Democratic nominee John Kerry's party.

In Nevada, 40 percent of voters labeled themselves Democrats and 41 percent checked off Republican. It's a similar story in Maine and Florida.

So it will be the party that gets its voters out and most important -- its base -- that will likely emerge victorious.

"I think in some sense you could define the fight for increased turnout this way," said CNN's Jeff Greenfield. "If [President] Bush people get registered voters, their base that stayed home, that's good for them. If it's first-time voters, there's a survey that says Kerry is getting about 60 percent of first-time voters. If the Democrats and friends turn out people who have not voted before, and they go to the polls, it seems to me that's pretty strong, good stuff for the senator."

But, Watson said, the Republican effort to pull its base to the polls has been extraordinary.

"In places like Iowa over the weekend, they made almost a half million phone calls and [door knocks]," he said. "The second thing is we can't underestimate the extent to which a lot of the Republican base, some of these lapsed voters, might be motivated by the values issues -- ... abortion, stem cell research ...same-sex marriage."

It's why previous patterns and predictions can't eliminate the cliffhanger aspect of this election, Watson said.

"We do know stuff about how voters have behaved in the past," he said, "but [with] the combination of first time voters and lapsed voters, these theories have limited use."

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