Down by 63,000 votes, the statewide ballot initiative for a $1-a-pack tax on cigarettes was pretty much given up for dead the night of the June 5 primary election.
Then, election workers across California began tallying stacks of uncounted ballots -- more than a million of them, mostly sent by mail a day or two before the election or handed in at polling places.
The gap in the vote on the tobacco tax, Proposition 29, began to narrow. By Friday night, the margin of defeat had shrunk to 16,778 votes -- or four-tenths of 1 percent.
"I think we're still definitely in it," said Jim Knox of the California Division of the American Cancer Society, one of the major supporters of the Yes on 29 campaign. "Either way, it appears this is going to be the closest ballot measure outcome in modern history -- if not ever."
Knox remains cautious for good reason. The measure was trailing by 29,000 a week ago, by 42,000 on Thursday and then dropped to its smallest gap yet on Friday.
The odds of the Yes on 29 campaign pulling off a victory remain long: About 52 percent of the remaining 436,000 uncounted ballots would have to favor the measure, which would fund cancer research and anti-smoking campaigns. The proposition reached or exceeded that level of support in only 16 of California's 58 counties.
"It's not very probable, not unless it gets the vast majority of outstanding ballots in counties where it's doing very well," said Stephen Weir, Contra Costa County's registrar of voters.
As the uncounted ballots were being tallied, some of the biggest gains were coming from large counties where the tobacco tax support received the strongest support, including Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara. The measure also picked up ground in San Diego County, where it still trails by 1 percent. The measure made a minute gain -- 0.2 percent -- in voter-rich Los Angeles County, where it still is losing by 1.2 percent, election figures show.
A spokeswoman for the No on 29 campaign, bankrolled by the tobacco industry, said the campaign was happy to still be in "such a good position."
"Coming out of election night with a 60,000-plus vote lead, we have always felt in a good position to hold on and be successful when all the votes are counted," said Beth Miller. "We're not seeing anything at this point to lead us to believe anything different."
The ballot count could continue to fluctuate until July 6, the deadline for county election officials to submit certified results.
Once the official results are announced, any voter has the right to ask for a recount, although requests must be made county by county and be paid for by the person making the request.
Proposition 29 would add a $1-a-pack tax on cigarettes to raise an estimated $860 million a year for research on tobacco-related diseases and for prevention programs.
The American Cancer Society and cycling champ Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor, were among the measure's biggest proponents, raising more than $11 million to support the ballot initiative.
Tobacco giants Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. poured nearly $47 million into the "no" campaign and were joined by anti-tax and business groups.
Vacillating counts are common in the weeks after Election Day, as uncounted ballots are processed and sporadically updated by counties. Some registrars wait until all ballots are tallied to report their vote updates; others do it as they go. The statewide margin of difference on Proposition 29 is less than 1 percentage point.