Every four years Presidential candidates chase a magic number: 270.
That 270 is the majority of the 538 delegates who will cast ballots in the Electoral College, representing --- but not legally committed to --- the popular vote in the 50 States and the District of Columbia.
It is this process, of 50 separate races instead of one national vote, that has seriously handicapped the chances of Mitt Romney winning the Presidency. Despite his rousing performance in Wednesday's debate in Denver, and his corresponding tightening of the race in subsequent polls, he has still has to vanquish the mathematics of the Electoral College.
Since 1992, the Democratic candidate --- even in the disputed loss of 2000 and that of 2004 --- has never taken less than 251 votes in the College. That base number is holding up for President Obama. Barring a disastrous turn of fortune for his campaign, he is a lock for all but 20 of the ballots needed to retain the White House.
In the phrase coined by Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal, it is a Democratic Blue Wall. Eighteen states have voted Democrat in every contest since 1992: “the 11 states from Maryland to Maine (except New Hampshire); the three West Coast states; and Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Hawaii (plus the District of Columbia)". That total of 242 votes is supplemented this year by the near-certainties of New Hampshire (4) and New Mexico (5) for Barack Obama.
Mitt Romney, by contrast, has only 181 votes that are certain or likely to vote Republican.
That leaves 106 votes in eight states to be grabbed. The importance of each state corresponds to how many votes they award, if only because President Obama --- with his Blue Wall --- needs to win far fewer of these states than Mitt Romney to triumph in the election. It is a harsh fact for the Romney campaign that if Obama secures the 29 votes of Florida, this Presidential election is all but over.
The Elite Eight:
Florida - 29 br>
Ohio – 18 br>
North Carolina – 15 br>
Virginia – 13 br>
Missouri – 10 br>
Colorado – 9 br>
Nevada – 6 br>
Iowa – 6
Real Clear Politics, which averages the results of the large number of polls, is the first place to look for trends in these states. In the case of Florida, two polls conducted after Wednesday's debate saw Mitt Romney overtake Obama's lead, but the RCP average has Florida tied. That status points to the importance of two strategies for the Romney campaign.
The first is to convince moderate Republicans, conservative Democrats, and Independents who were swayed by the enthusiasm of Obama's "hope and change" message --- turning the Republican 5% victory margin in 2004 into a 2.8% advantage for the Democratics in 2008 --- to switch their allegiance.
The second strategy is to turn out Republican voters at the polls at a much higher rate than in 2008. This means investing resources heavily in areas such as the northeast region around Jacksonville. In August, Reince Priebus, the Republican National Chairman, said:
We have to drive up the score here so that we can make sure that we make up ground in other areas. We're going to have a plan in this county to not just win, but to try to win as big as possible. Winning here isn't enough. You have to do great in places you're strong.
Central to these two strategies is matching the effort of Democrats in the state. In 2008, John McCain was heavily outspent by President Obama, but Republicans are confident that this election they have the finances, and an expanded grassroots operation, to make sure their message is heard.
Ohio was also taken by Obama from the Republicans in 2008, continuing Ohio's unique record of almost always supporting the winner –--- since 1944, it was only "wrong" in 1960 when it voted for Richard Nixon over President Kennedy.
RCP has President Obama up by 3%, but Mitt Romney has cut into a much bigger lead after Wednesday's debate. Indeed, the Republican should be winning in Ohio. Polls in the state show that President Obama is regarded unfavourably, by a slight margin, and Ohioans are not happy with his handling of the economy. However, Romney has not managed to turn that into an advantage because voters are not convinced that his economic policies are better for them than the President's. Morevoer, moderate voters who might move to the Republicans, especially women, do not trust his stance on social issues.
In Virginia, with 13 votes, RCP has the race as a virtual tie, with President Obama holding a 0.4% lead over Mitt Romney. That is a tight enough margin for media to ponder if the race --- which Obama won by 6.3% in 2008 --- could be tipped by a Republican State legislature and governor who have passed a law requiring anyone who wants an abortion tundergo an ultrasound first:
University of Virginia political analyst Geoffrey Skelley said, "The economy is the number one issue everywhere, but due to recent events in Virginia politics, abortion and other related issues --- such as access to birth control --- are playing a role. They are one reason why Obama has around a 10 percent lead among women over Mitt Romney in Virginia.
Romney's problems with a majority of women are compounded by a demographic shift in the state. Where Virginia was --- like much of the South --- solidly Republican until 2008, the latest census of 2010 showed that 3 northern counties were leading Virginia's transformation into a more ethnically diverse, and liberal, state:
The 2010 Census numbers underscore how the home of the former capital of the Confederacy is evolving into a mosaic of races and ethnicities from around the world. It has grown by a third in the past two decades, and its very character is changing. Today, seven of 10 Virginians live in three big urban areas, and Virginia's once-mighty rural areas are shrinking. Dozens of small towns, mostly in the rural southwest and Southside, lost residents.
Colorado, with 9 votes, has also seen a significant demographic shift like Virginia. The number of Hispanic voters --- who favour Obama by a 70-20 margin at the moment --- has doubled since 2008, and they now represent 14% of eligible voters in the state.
In a close race those numbers matter, and Colorado is an example of where the Democratic Party's greater investment in an on-the-ground campaign operation could convert that advantage into ballots cast. About 70% of the state's final electoral count will come from some form of early voting, and whereas Romney has 13 field offices to encourage participation, President Obama has 59.
Missouri, and its 10 EC votes, qualifies as a battleground state because Democrats still hope that the GOP brand has been so damaged by comments made by their Senate candidate, Todd Akin, that they can ride dissatisfaction among moderates to a general election victory. In a television interview in mid-August Akin, challenging Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, claimed that in instances of “legitimate rape”, the “female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”
President Obama nearly won Missouri in 2008, losing by just 0.1%, but since then demographic shifts in the state have benefited Republicans. and Mitt Romney currently holds a lead of 5% in the polls. However, Missouri has a Democratic governor who hold a 14% lead in a re-election campaign, and though McCaskill's lead over Akin is dwindling, it still stands at 5%.
Then again, Obama is not popular in the state, and both Governor Nixon and Senator McCaskill have stressed that they are independent voices not beholden to the Democratic Party establishment. So at this point it is a long shot for the President to take the Show-Me State.
At this point, however, Missouri and North Carolina are the only two of the Elite Eight where Romney holds the advantage. That is not enough to climb the Blue Wall and remove Obama from office, so despite the Republican's excellent showing in the debate last Wednesday and his subsequent bounce in the polls, InTrade gives him only a 1 in 3 chance of winning the Presidency.
In a national race where polls have Romney in a dead-heat with Obama, that may not make sense. Politics is a handicap race, however. The make-up of the Electoral College means that Romney not only to match the President but decisively overtake him to claim victory on 6 November.