“This is not a national election,” says veteran pollster Neil Newhouse, “it’s a state-by-state election.”
The poll you saw on television news last night may have said Democrat Barack Obama is back in the lead, and a new one next week in this paper could say Republican John McCain has drawn level. But such national surveys are imprecise tools for forecasting the outcome of a US presidential election when the race is tight — as it is this year.
That’s because the polls ask a sample of registered voters across the country how they plan to vote. The real election, however, works differently.
The president is not elected by popular vote; voters in each state select the electors who then vote for the president. To become president, a candidate has to win 270 of the 538 votes in the electoral college.
True, it is voters who choose a slate of electors to serve in the electoral college, by casting their vote for president (and vice-president). Yes, the number of electors from each state reflects its population. (It is the state’s membership in the House of Representatives plus two for the Senate.) And yes, even the District of Columbia has its say with three electors (though territories like Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands don’t).
But counting is done state by state and the winner usually gets all the electors from that state. It makes no difference whether a candidate wins a state by 5 percentage points or 15. In a close contest, a candidate could win the most votes nationally but end up losing the election. The last time this happened was in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote narrowly, but George W Bush became president.
Some states are clearly Democratic, like California and New York, and some are strongly Republican, like Texas. In some others, the contest is close. In Newhouse’s opinion, 12 states hold the key to this election. They are Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Virginia.
We have 43 days to go, and that’s a lot of time.