As you know by now, we are deep in the heart of election
season. Many of you have likely been inundated with ads,
flyers, e-mails and phone calls from eager campaign staff looking
for your vote (and a contribution too, if you don't
mind!). But through the haze of ads and news coverage of
poll results, it's not always clear just what exactly is at
stake. So over the coming days, we'll be
providing brief primers on what to look for this November and how
you can track the action through Election Day.
Today we take a look at the race for the White House.
How a President Gets Elected
President Barack Obama and his opponent, former Massachusetts
Governor Mitt Romney, are in a tight race nationally for control of
the White House. Recent polls
have shown the candidates tied among likely voters nationally,
particularly after Governor Romney's strong showing in the
first presidential debate.
But while the national "horse race" numbers are what
are most commonly tracked in media coverage, the ultimate vote for
president falls to the Electoral College. The College is
comprised of the 538 electors, representing the 435 members of the
House of Representatives, 100 Senators, and three representatives
of the District of Columbia. In order to win the
presidency, a candidate must receive a majority of 270 electoral
Most states utilize a "winner take all" method for
casting electoral votes, meaning that the candidate with the most
votes in the state receives all of its electoral votes.
So, for example, the candidate who wins the popular vote in
California will receive 55 electoral votes: one for each of the
state's 53 House districts and two Senators.
Two states, Nebraska and Maine, award their electoral votes
proportionally. In those states, the candidate with the
most votes in each Congressional district wins that
district's electoral vote, and the two Senate votes are
awarded to the candidate with the most votes statewide.
So while the head-to-head national poll numbers that roll in
just about daily can be very interesting, the race for president is
really 50 separate state races. You need only look back
to the controversial election of 2000 — when then-Vice
President Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 500,000 only to
come up short in the Electoral College – to recognize
which numbers really count.
States That Matter in 2012
By and large, most states are not competitive in presidential
voting. Most are safely "red" (Republican) or
"blue" (Democrat). In these states, the
campaigns are effectively over before they start.
What that means is that a select few "swing states"
end up determining the occupant of the White House. These
are the states that can vary from red to blue depending on the
election, and they're the states where the campaigns most
heavily invest their time and resources. For 2012, these
If you really want to know who the next president will be,
you'll need to keep an eye toward how the candidates fare
in these key battleground states.
How to Keep Track
Here are two great sites to check if you want to be in-the-know
on the race for the White House:
FiveThirtyEight is a polling aggregation blog run by
statistician Nate Silver. Silver weights and adjusts
polling averages, then incorporates a "linear regression
analysis" to incorporate other factors such as incumbency,
funding, and state partisan voting records to develop a forecasting
model to predict winners in each state. Forecasts are
updated daily with the latest polling information. In 2008, Silver
accurately predicted the winner in 49 of the 50 states.
Before taking on politics, Silver was a popular baseball writer,
and he developed the "PECOTA" system for forecasting the
future performance of baseball players.
InTrade is a trading exchange website that works like a futures
market for political outcomes. Trade values are
established based on market demand, so percentages represent the
assessment of traders on the probabilities of the race.
This is a great tool for measuring the conventional wisdom of where
the race stands on any given day.
Bookmark these sites and you'll have an excellent grasp
on where the race stands (and impress your friends with your
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