And the Winners Will Be... As this very close election goes to the wire, we provide signposts to help you predict the next President and interpret the rest of the vote.
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum Reporter Associate Ron Orol

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Here are three words you rarely hear in the nation's capital: I don't know. The experts, pundits, and Beltway blabbermouths are often wrong but seldom uncertain. This year is different. Election 2000 is too close to call. George W. Bush looks as if he might edge out Al Gore for the White House. And Democrats are poised to gain seats in the House and Senate, perhaps enough in the House to take control. But who knows? Polls show so many races within the margin of error that even the bravest prognosticators hesitate to declaim. The best they can do is spin wild scenarios. One suggests a presidential contest so tight that the top man in the popular vote loses in the Electoral College. The only time that happened, in 1888, Benjamin Harrison won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland. The Constitution says the electoral vote determines the presidency.

Political junkies are addicted to analyzing the obvious and guessing the unknowable. Rather than add to that clutter, what follows is not so much a series of predictions as a set of signposts designed to help you read the races as they unfold on Nov. 7. Here's how things looked as FORTUNE went to press a couple of weeks before Election Day.

The White House

National polls show Bush ahead. But those aren't the polls that count. Because of the Electoral College, the presidential race is really a state-by-state affair. Since most states are already in the bag for one candidate or the other, the dozen or so states on the cusp should be the focus of our attention. Certainly that's where Bush and Gore are concentrating. The most important is Florida; if Bush loses there, his chances of becoming President range from slim to none. Although Gore has spent a lot of time and money in the state, Bush has lately inched ahead with help from his brother Jeb, the governor.

If Bush carries Florida, the battle moves to the Rust Belt, a region that's been seesawing for months. The key states--Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin--have 84 electoral votes (out of 270 needed to win). Illinois and Wisconsin have been leaning to Gore, Ohio and Missouri to Bush. Pennsylvania and Michigan have been close, close, close. If one candidate wins both states, he will probably be President.

Several small states could also be critical in this neck-and-neck race. Ironically, two that Bush could carry are the home states of Bill Clinton (Arkansas) and Gore (Tennessee). That's odd: Incumbent politicians rarely lose their own folks. Other small states in play include Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Nevada, Iowa, West Virginia, and New Hampshire. And here's one big-state indicator: California. If Gore loses there, he's finished.

What's remarkable is that Bush is in the hunt at all. At a time of sparkling prosperity, Gore should have a gigantic advantage. But the Vice President has not worn well. Too many voters see him as that arrogant guy from Washington, the smarty-pants kid who tells the teacher he's already read the next six chapters. Despite all the legitimate worries about Bush's brains and experience, Gore has not emerged as decisively more presidential. Nor has the news of the day been good for him. Turmoil in the Middle East and in the U.S. stock markets has marred the otherwise exemplary Clinton-Gore record in both areas. Gore has also been slow to trumpet the accomplishments of the Clinton years for fear of being tainted by a single year of Monica Lewinsky.

Bush has two advantages that haven't been written about enough. The first is money. Republicans have a $40 million lead going into the final weeks of the campaign. That will buy a lot of TV commercials and get-out-the-vote phone calls. Bush's second advantage is governors. Republicans control 30 statehouses, including those in many battleground states: Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. All the GOP governors are working overtime for their colleague.

Ultimately, the result will depend on turnout. In 1996 barely half of eligible voters went to the polls. If history repeats, relatively small blocs of voters could make the difference between victory and defeat. Bush has put enormous emphasis on mobilizing his advocates; he is said to have 189 separate direct-mail letters for Michigan alone. But Gore has the most muscle behind him: organized labor. The extent to which the AFL-CIO's rank and file is energized and votes could determine who the next President will be.

The Senate

To learn which party will control the Senate, pay attention to the winners in Nevada and Virginia. If Democrats retain both seats, they have an outside chance of retaking the Senate. If they lose both, forget about it. Let's do the math. The current Senate split is 54 Republicans to 46 Democrats. That means the Democrats must gain a net of five seats to capture the majority. If they lose Virginia and Nevada, where Democratic candidates are considered most vulnerable, they will have to win all seven of the remaining seats that are tossups. That will be very hard, especially after the recent death of Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, who was close to unseating Republican Senator John Ashcroft.

Still, Democrats are well positioned to narrow the GOP majority in the Senate. Only three seats currently held by Democrats are in much danger of changing hands, while six or seven Republican-held seats are on the edge. "We expect Democrats to have a net gain of two or three seats--and almost no chance of getting over the line to majority," concludes Jennifer Duffy, Cook Political Report's Senate analyst.

The most consequential race for the business community is in Delaware, where William Roth, 79, a five-term Republican who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is in a close contest against Governor Tom Carper, a 53-year-old Democrat and former Congressman. People in Delaware have been voting for both men for so long that the race isn't ideological. It's more like a race for upper-form president in a small private school. The premier and costliest Senate race is in New York, where First Lady Hillary Clinton is trying to hold off GOP Representative Rick Lazio. The Senate candidate spending by far the most of his own money is New Jersey Democrat Jon Corzine, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs; his $60 million run should pay off.

The Democrats' best chance of winning a Republican seat is in Minnesota. Republican Senator Rod Grams, who is conservative for his state, faces Mark Dayton, the former state auditor and Dayton-Hudson retail-store heir, who has lost two previous bids for statewide office. Republicans also might lose the Florida seat held by retiring Senator Connie Mack. Former Congressman and state insurance commissioner Bill Nelson (who once flew the space shuttle) has been consistently ahead of Republican Congressman Bill McCollum, who gained fame (or is it infamy?) as an impeachment manager against Bill Clinton.

The new economy could gain its first Senator if former one-term Congresswoman Maria Cantwell, a 42-year-old Washington State Democrat, manages to unseat three-term GOP Senator Slade Gorton, 71. Cantwell made millions by working for RealNetworks, the interactive communications company, after she was defeated for reelection to the House in 1994.

Democrats have their own uphill battles. The highest-profile one is in Virginia. Two-term Senator Chuck Robb, the husband of L.B.J.'s daughter Lynda, is struggling against a fellow former governor, George Allen, son of the late George Allen Sr., the legendary Washington Redskins football coach. Six years ago Robb squeaked by Iran-Contra's Oliver North to win reelection. Allen, a moderate, is a craftier foe. Democrats are also on the verge of losing the seat being vacated by Nevada Senator Richard Bryan. Ex-GOP Representative John Ensign nearly beat Nevada's other Democratic Senator Harry Reid two years ago and is ahead in the polls against Democrat Ed Bernstein, a trial lawyer and political neophyte.

If Gore wins, there may be a limit to the Democrats' celebration on the Senate floor. That's because Gore's running mate, Joe Lieberman, is the Democratic Senator from Connecticut. Connecticut's governor is a Republican. He would appoint a Republican to fill Lieberman's Senate seat, which could help the GOP keep control.

The House

It's hard to imagine a scenario in which Republicans don't lose ground in their fight to keep control of the House. Republicans have 223 seats and Democrats have 209, with two independents and one vacancy. A net gain by Democrats of just seven seats would mean that Dick Gephardt would replace Dennis Hastert as Speaker. Voters are closely divided over whether they want Democrats or Republicans to be in charge. The key to assessing the future of the House is to look at the handful of races considered close. Out of 435 contests, there aren't more than 20 in which there's much doubt about who's going to prevail. Although Democrats are likely to win a majority of the tossups, no one can assess with certainty whether that will ensure them control of the House.

The most vulnerable situation for either party is an open seat--one in which an incumbent isn't running. Republicans have more than twice as many open seats (25) as Democrats (ten). Actually, the GOP is even more threatened than those numbers suggest. According to Cook Political Report, only two of the Democrats' open seats are tossups, while nine of the Republicans' could go either way. If all the competitive, open seats were to go to the other party, that would be a seven-seat Republican loss right there, and hello, Speaker Gephardt. Several of the most important committee chairmanships--Ways and Means, Judiciary, Commerce--would then fall to liberal Democrats.

Although each of these at-risk campaigns has its own issues and dynamics, a win by Gore would, on balance, nudge the House toward the Democrats; a Bush victory would help the Republicans. That is, of course, unless the top-of-the-ticket pushes in the opposite direction. Some swing voters have in recent years cast their ballots intentionally for divided government. It's possible that Bush could win the White House and Republicans could lose the House--or vice versa.

As the election results roll in, here are a couple of tips. First, watch the open seats. Amy Walter, Cook Political Report's House expert, says two Democratic-held congressional districts--Michigan-8 and Missouri-6--and five Republican-held seats--Florida-8, New Jersey-7, New York-2, Oklahoma-2, and Washington-2--are bellwether races. Whichever way they break, so goes the House. If that's too much work, keep an eye on freshman Republican Congressman Don Sherwood of Scranton, Pa. He is in a rematch against Pat Casey, a son of the late (and beloved) Democratic Governor Bob Casey. If Sherwood falls, so may the GOP's House majority.

At least six teetering seats currently held by Republicans won't be decided until the polls close on the West Coast. We might not know who the next Speaker is until the sun rises in California on Nov. 8. And we might not know even then. At least one maverick Democrat, Congressman James Traficant of Ohio, says he'll vote for Hastert for Speaker next year.

REPORTER ASSOCIATE Ron Orol