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The Political Pulse

Latest opinion research and analysis

The Knowledge: Closing the campaign

As the US presidential election enters its final lap, our pollster Mark Gettleson crunches the numbers








Before his disastrous debate in Denver, the vast majority of polling analysts looking at Barack Obama’s campaign thought he had the election in the bag. Much as his national poll lead was never that great, he had large enough leads in key states of the electoral college to weather the storm.

Since then, a lot has changed: the President has continued to trail Mitt Romney in the national tracking polls, especially those produced by Gallup. But the President does remain a slight favourite for re-election next week due to his strength in these key states.

It seems distinctly possible – though by no means likely – that Mitt Romney will win the popular vote while Barack Obama wins the Presidency. This is exactly how George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000, despite having more than half a million fewer votes.

Put simply, Barack Obama has more paths to the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the Presidency. Strip away the states where the winner is in any serious doubt, and the President has 237 votes to Governor Romney’s 191 – or more starkly, out of 110 electoral votes in the states of Florida (29), Ohio (18), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), Wisconsin (10), Colorado (9), Iowa (6), Nevada (6) and New Hampshire (4), Obama needs to pick up 33 of them and Romney 79.

How does Mitt Romney get there? First, he needs Florida – if President Obama were to win there, he only needs one other small swing state to carry him over. Despite showing a pre-debate lead for Obama, polls have shown the Republican with a slight edge in the Sunshine State since. He also needs North Carolina, which Obama won by a whisker in 2008 and where polls have shown Romney leading a surprisingly close race.

From then on, the former Massachusetts Govenor’s path to the additional 35 votes becomes more difficult. In Virginia, a state where Barack Obama has tended to outperform his national polling, he must break the dead heat – and this may be the place where tropical storm Sandy makes the difference, having curtailed the ability of voters to drop off their absentee ballots at registrars’ offices in heavily Democratic Northern Virginia.

There are also two states where Democrats are playing a heavy defence: Iowa and Wisconsin, the latter of which hasn’t picked a Republican for President since 1984, but where they successfully defeated a Democratic attempt to recall the Governor. Both will prove tough for Romney. The same is true of New Hampshire, the last redoubt of an old New England small state Republicanism, for whom the Party has seemed all too interested in telling people how to live their lives over the past decade.

As has been argued right through the campaign, it will probably all come down to Ohio – where, if the polls are to be believed, the President’s vote is holding up better than anywhere else. That, above all else, is why he remains the favourite on Tuesday.