The state of the election, according to Republican strategist Karl Rove
After more than 18 months of preparations and campaigning, either President Barack Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney will be elected by US voters today --- that is, barring a knife-edge outcome as in Bush-Gore 2000 or a legal challenge over claimed irregularities in the ballot.
Most broadcast commentators are drawing in viewers with "Too Close to Call". The reality, however, is that Obama should be declared the victor late tonight. Here's why:
Many US outlets have been basing their Too-Close headline on national polls. Many of these have given Romney a narrow lead after Obama's poor performance in the first debate in early October. In recent days, the President has overturned this in almost all polls --- the range is from "Tie" to "Obama +3" --- but the drama of a race to the wire is being maintained.
This, however, is the wrong way to evaluate a Presidential election. It is not decided on the national popular vote, but on the State-by-State return of "electors" --- effectively winner-take-all contests in each of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia --- to the 568-member Electoral College. The first man to claim 270 electors wins.
That system has always favoured Obama, because the Democrats have a lock on three of the six biggest states --- California (55 electors), New York (29), and Illinois (20). Add Pennsylvania (20) --- Romney is mounting a desperate last-minute attempt to steal the state, but this is a long-shot --- and the President is nearly halfway to his target.
Indeed, we have projected throughout this campaign that the Democrats are safe or almost-safe in 20 states with a total of 241 electoral votes. Despite some GOP cheerleading in the last two weeks that they could take Michigan (16), Wisconsin (10), and/or Minnesota (10), as well as Pennsylvania, we see nothing to change that projection.
The Republicans are safe or almost-safe in 24 states, but their only big prize is Texas (38). So their total of 206 electoral votes puts them at a significant disadvantage going into the 7 states whose electors are --- nominally --- up for grabs.
Those states are Florida (29), Ohio (18), Virginia (13), Colorado (9), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), and New Hampshire (4).
So here is how Mitt Romney's steep three-step climp up the Election Day mountain to upset Obama:
1. WIN FLORIDA
If Romney loses the Sunshine State, the election is effectively over. Obama will have the 270 electors he needs for the White House.
Indeed, the President probably could have sealed the deal with a good performance in the first debate. His stumble, however, flipped Florida into Romney's column. Although Obama's steadier campaign since then has checked the decline and begun to claw back likely votes, Florida has been more resistant than Ohio to a Democratic bounce-back: the GOP is counting on a bedrock of conservative voters, especially in the north of the state and special factors like the Israel issue bringing Jewish voters to Romney.
We are still projecting a narrow Romney win; however, in the last 24 hours, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight.com has tipped Florida by a small margin back to Obama.
2. WIN OHIO
The BBC's James Naughtie pronounced this morning, "If Romney wins Florida, and Obama wins Ohio, this race is wide-open."
Wrong. Very Wrong.
The Buckeye State, which was decisive in the 2000 is almost as vital to Romney as Florida. An Obama victory gives the President 259 electors --- the President will only two of the remaining five states in play to win the White House.
It is notable that even after Obama's first-debate stumble, the Democratic lead in Ohio narrowed but never disappeared. The most optimistic polls for the Republicans have shown a tie, but most surveys have shown an Obama lead.
Romney has struggled to get across his message in Ohio, which has suffered in the economic downturn, that he is more reliable than Obama on the economy. The GOP emphasis on tax cuts may have been a strategic mistake, as unemployment is the larger issue.
Yet even if Obama is the favourite, Ohio offers a notable complication. There has been a running dispute over the state's approach to registration and early voting, with claims that Republican officials have been carrying out unjustified disqualification of voters and restricting the early voting to produce long lines that might discourage Democratic supporters. It is a situation that deserves monitoring today, given loud whispers of a possible legal challenge.
3. WIN AT LEAST TWO OF THE FIVE OTHER "TOSS-UP" STATES
There are five other states where polls have been sufficiently close over the last month to call them "toss-ups": Virginia (13), Colorado (9), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), and New Hampshire (4).
The problem for Romney is that in three of those states --- Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire --- he has always trailed. In the last three weeks, as his early-October bounce has faded, the Republican has fallen further behind. There is only a slim chance at this point of a GOP upset.
So that leaves Romney counting on Virginia and Colorado, which have swung back-and-forth in the last four weeks. As last as 10 days ago, he had a narrow advantage in both states, but this is now gone: 538.com puts Obama at a 70% favourite in each.
Virginia had voted Republican in every Presidential election since 1964 until it went for Obama in 2008, so the GOP had high hopes of pulling the state back. Given the diversity of the population, from the Washington DC "outer belt" in the north to the capital Richmand to the western mountains, that could happen.
Colorado is also a divided state in many respects, with the general perception of more liberal Boulder and Denver vs. conservative cities such as Fort Collins and the rural areas.
If the election had been two weeks ago, while the Democrats were still recovering from the early-October slump, there might have been hope for Romney to achieve his three steps. But the election is today, and the chance has not slipped away.
Look for the Republicans, if they lose, to bemoan the "October surprise" of Superstorm Sandy. The verdict, however, rests on more than this: had the GOP played more to the centre, it might have captured some of the "swing states" with the claim to be the better choice for handling of the economy.
The Romney campaign, however, chose to secure its perceived base with a sweeping approach to the economy that put tax cuts and general changes to social services above Obama's emphasis on "steadying the ships". Add in some Republican errors over social issues --- for example, the intemperate remarks of some of its Congressional candidates on abortion, likely to bring out many female voters for the Democrats today --- and this is a longer-term story of a "pragmatic" President holding back the challenge of a GOP that missed its opportunity.