Most people outside the United States assume that Obama will win a second term in November. After all, he is the incumbent, he has not suffered any personal or political scandal, he is so intelligent and fluent, he baled out the auto industry, he is reforming the financial system, he is introducing a new healthcare system, he has pulled troops out of Iraq and is in the process of doing the same in Afghanistan
However, in the United States where I have just spent two weeks, things look very different.
To conservatives and Republicans – specially of the Tea Party variety – he favours federal spending programmes, he wants to increase taxes, he supports gay marriage, and what’s more he’s an intellectual (which is true) and black (not that they admit this is a factor) and in some minds he is not a US citizen, not a Christian, and a socialist and communist (these people have never visited a communist country).
Meanwhile, to liberals and Democrats, he has failed to be as radical as his election campaign led them to hope, he has compromised with Congress too easily, he has done nothing to support the unions, he has put security before liberty on too many issues, and abroad he has not closed down Guantanamo Bay prison and he has supported drone attacks and a kill list.
So, in opinion polls, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are pretty much neck and neck at the moment.
In fact, in a US presidential election, what is important is not just how people vote but where they vote.
This is because it is perfectly possible for one candidate to win more votes than the other nationwide but still lose the election. This is what happened with Al Gore running against George W Bush in 2000. The explanation for this is that the choice of president is not determined by the number of votes cast by the electorate but the number of votes allocated by the Electoral College which, according to the the US Constitution, has the responsibility for selecting the president.
Now, of the 50 states (plus the District of Columbia), the majority can be reliably assumed to vote either Democrat (a blue state) or Republican (a red state), so the only states that really matter are those – around 12 – where the outcome is uncertain (what the political commentators call ‘competitive’).
So, to estimate how the likely presidential candidates – Obama for the Democrats and Romney for the Republicans – are probably going to do in the forthcoming election, we need to know two things:
1) How many Electoral College votes does each state have? You’ll find the answer here.
2) Which states are fairly certain for Obama and Romney respectively and which are in contention? You’ll find an estimate here.
If the Real Clear Politics estimate is correct, Obama and Romney are close in the nationwide polls, but the President is better placed in terms of likely votes in the Electoral College.
Clearly the states that really, really matter are ones with lots of Electoral College votes which are still competitive – places such as Florida (29 votes), Pennsylvania (20) and perhaps especially Ohio (18).
In the end, it will probably come down to turnout on the two sides. How angry are Republicans? How disillusioned are Democrats? In five months time, we will know.
Meanwhile watch this space – I’ll be blogging on the contest as it unfolds.