As analysts continue to pull out their calculators and do the electoral math with just two weeks to go until the presidential election, it appears that while GOP challenger Mitt Romney has substantially closed the gap on President Obama in many states and in national polls, Romney still has a more difficult path than Obama in getting enough electoral votes to win the election.
With Romney’s surge after the first presidential debate, experts are looking at the possibility of a repeat of 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush won the election by taking the electoral college votes—helped substantially by the U.S. Supreme Court, which handed him the state of Florida. Romney could win the popular vote—most national polls show a virtual tie, with Reuters putting Obama up by one point nationally—but lose the election because Obama gets to the 270 electoral votes needed to take it.
Most eyes are focused on Ohio, where a lot of this will play out. Before the first debate, Romney didn’t seem to be close enough to Obama in enough states to win the election even if he won Ohio, but that calculation has changed as he has made gains in other states. So that makes Ohio even more important.
“Before the first debate the electoral math looked like a real reach for Romney. Today, it looks quite possible,” Peter Brown, a pollster at Quinnipiac University, told Reuters.
“Ohio is the big unknown, and it’s Romney’s biggest obstacle,” Brown said. “If Romney can win Ohio, he’s likely to win the election.”
Romney has started to compete harder in states like Iowa and Wisconsin, where Obama has slim leads. According to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, Obama has a lead of at least four percentage points in states that account for 237 electoral votes, while Romney enters the last two weeks with an edge of that size in states that represent 206 electoral votes.
So what we’re left with is eight toss-up states representing 95 electoral votes, all won by Obama in the 2008 election: Colorado (9 electoral votes), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18), Virginia (13) and Wisconsin (10).
According to Reuters, in the last two weeks Romney has moved into a small lead or a virtual tie with Obama in Florida, Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia, which together account for 55 electoral votes. A sweep of all four still would leave Romney nine electoral votes short of victory, which is why the race is boiling down to the battle in Ohio.
If Romney could win in Ohio, he would have more than 270 and still have some margin of error to lose other states that are still in play. But if Romney loses Ohio, either Wisconsin or a combination of Nevada and Iowa still could be enough to win—although Obama, in addition to having slim leads in Wisconsin and Iowa, also leads in Nevada.
“Things have moved consistently in Romney’s direction, but he still hasn’t unlocked the gates to enough places yet,” said pollster Thomas Riehle of YouGov, a market research company that is conducting polling in swing states. “Romney needs more good news before he’s a safe bet to win.”
But some pollsters are skeptical of that Romney path to victory. If Obama wins the states where he currently has comfortable leads and adds just Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio, he would have 271 electoral votes, which would put him over the top.
“Until we see something that suggests other states are in play, these Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio numbers mean it’s still a reach for Romney to win,” said Lee Miringoff, a Marist College pollster.
He released surveys on Thursday showing Obama with a lead of eight points in Iowa and six points in Wisconsin, although a survey by Public Policy Polling on Friday gave Romney a one-point edge in Iowa.