WASHINGTON -- To understand the presidential race, do as Percival Lowell did. Infer what is unseen from what is seen.
Lowell (1855-1916) was the American astronomer whose study of the orbit of Uranus revealed irregularities he thought could most reasonably be explained as effects of an unseen planet. This ignited a search that culminated in the discovery of Pluto.
The dynamic of today's presidential race, as those most intimately involved -- the two campaigns -- understand it, can be inferred from where they are investing television advertising money. Consider California.
Given the number of electoral votes in the "Republican L" (go south from the Canadian border through the Mountain and Prairie states, turn east at Texas and cross the South to the Atlantic), California's 54 electoral votes -- one-fifth of the 270 needed to win -- are more vital to Democrats than to Republicans. And California's Republican Party has not won a U.S. Senate race since 1988; its 1998 gubernatorial candidate got just 38.4 percent of the vote; George Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole quickly quit contesting California, finishing with 32.6 and 38.2 percent of California's votes, respectively. California had been considered safe for Al Gore.
So why is George W. Bush spending $1.5 million a week on television there -- $1 million of it in Los Angeles? Because he is close enough to hope to win, or at least to force Mr. Gore to spend in California money that cannot be spent in, say, Florida.
Republicans have heard that during a recent week Gov. Gray Davis' nightly tracking polls showed Mr. Bush behind three to five points -- and ahead once. Recent Republican polling put Mr. Bush behind by 18 points in Los Angeles, but ahead 12 to 14 points in the rest of the state. Then a respected public poll put Mr. Bush behind by just four points. On Oct. 17, Garry South, one of Mr. Gore's principal California strategists, warned that "it has closed up here," Mr. Bush is "resonating with people" and "we may have to spend some money here."
The number of states within reach of both candidates is growing rather than shrinking as Election Day nears. Mr. Bush did not expect to be worrying in late October about Nevada. Mr. Gore is moving television money into Tennessee and Arkansas, which is embarrassing. Mr. Bush is increasing his buys in West Virginia, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington. President Clinton carried all of those twice, and they were six of the 10 states Michael Dukakis carried in 1988.
Political astronomers adept at charting conflicting forces in the social solar system should study Michigan, where Mr. Bush could be hurt by a conservative measure -- a splendid school choice voucher initiative targeted at failing inner city schools -- that could enlarge Michigan's turnout. It is supported by the Catholic hierarchy, whose schools would benefit from an enlargement of the pool of pupils empowered to exercise choice. But this initiative may increase the turnout of Catholics, including Democratic Catholics, and African-Americans, who will vote for the initiative and for Mr. Gore.
The contest that has stirred the deepest passions nationally is New York's Senate race.
People trying to plot the effects of various political planets on one another should consider that if Mr. Gore loses, the optimum outcome for conservatives might be for Hillary Clinton to win. Instantly she would be the Democratic Party -- much the most visible Democrat nationally and the leading aspirant for the 2004 presidential nomination.
Her quest for the nomination would divide Democrats. Were she to win the nomination, she would be the weakest Democratic nominee since George McGovern, who in 1972 carried Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. And her candidacy probably would catalyze party switching by a few conservative Democratic members of Congress.
On Nov. 7, for the sixth time in 10 elections, the nation will elect a Southerner. (In the other four elections it chose Californians -- southern Californians.) This not only illustrates, redundantly, the political eclipse of the Northeast (that region's consolation prize is Connecticut's Joe Lieberman), it shows that both parties can reasonably hope to harvest electoral votes almost everywhere. Which is why the political planetarium has never presented a more complex picture.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.