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Presidential Race Looks Different In Electoral College


Now that Mitt Romney is the all but official Republican presidential nominee, he's running close to President Obama in the national polls. But the presidency is actually determined not by a national vote but by 50 statewide elections, with each state result yielding a certain number of votes in the Electoral College. And looking at the elections that way makes the race look less close. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving is here to explain. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And you said that the electoral college map looks better for President Obama than, say, the Gallup poll, which today, actually, has Mitt Romney up 46 to 45. Why should he be doing better than the Electoral College?

ELVING: Because the states where Obama is winning or likely to win have more people, and therefore more votes in the Electoral College, than the states were Romney is currently winning or expected to win. Now, this is based on past voting experience and patterns and on statewide polling done in recent weeks in those states.

SIEGEL: But isn't the election still too close to call in at least a dozen states?

ELVING: Yes, it is. And what happens in those states will ultimately make the difference. But Obama starts from a higher base of states going his way on those maps where they show all the maps in either red or blue, and you can push them around and click on them and make them one or the other. And if you look through those maps, you'll find that Obama starts from a higher base then Romney does.

And that means he needs far less from the tossup states to get to 270, which is the magic number that represents the majority in the Electoral College. He only has to really hold his base that he has now or is leaning to him now, and then get about 30 percent of the electoral votes from the tossup states. And that means if he had, say, Florida and Ohio or Florida and Pennsylvania, that should do it for him, whereas, Romney is not anywhere near being that close.

SIEGEL: So that's how it looks from the side of the Obama camp. What do Mitt Romney and the Republicans need to do to overcome that Electoral College advantage for the president?

ELVING: He needs 100 electoral votes from the tossup states, in addition to holding the states that are currently being leaned to him. So that's about 70 percent of what's currently considered to be too close to call. And the discouraging part is that right now, Obama is ahead, at least a little bit, in most of those tossup states as well.

So what they need to do is take back some of the states that Obama captured in 2008 - states that had voted not once but twice for George W. Bush, and then switched in 2008, became blue states. Right now, the projections, which show one pretty likely to do that, that's Indiana. And that's a start. And if Romney also takes, say, Florida and Ohio, that's 47 more electoral votes between them, and then North Carolina, Virginia would be good for another 28 combined. And then, at that point, either Colorado or Nevada would put him over 270. And all those are states that voted twice for George W. Bush.

SIEGEL: He has to practically run the table of those tossup states to do that. Didn't the Republican task get easier in this election because the 2010 census lead, as it always does, to a reapportion of electoral votes?

ELVING: Yes, it did, a bit, mostly because Texas gained four electoral votes, so four congressional seats, and some of the blue states, like New York, lost several. But some red states also slipped a bit, lost the seat here and there. And so, the net gain for the states that had voted for John McCain was only roughly half a dozen or about one percent of the total Electoral College, not an insignificant amount, of course, in an ultra-close election, such as we had in 2000.

SIEGEL: So you're saying that when the national polling shows President Obama and Mitt Romney within a couple of points of each other, that's still very good news for Barack Obama. Given the way the Electoral College map looks, what are the caveats here?

ELVING: We should say that the Romney camp is by no means ready to concede all of those states that are leaned to Obama in these projections that we see on these maps. They're certainly going to compete in Michigan and Wisconsin and New Jersey, just to name a few of the things that are leaned to Obama, but which they would very much like to have back and very much think they can get back.

Beyond that, we should always remember that this is a projected that scoreboard for a contest in which no score really counts until the end. So if the economy sours or softens in the months ahead, Romney standing is likely to improve dramatically.

SIEGEL: You mentioned to the - the election of 2000 a moment ago. What is the possibility that it all could once again just thumb down to Florida late at night after Election Day?

ELVING: It's easy to imagine it all being about Florida. Again, you know, Florida is up to 29 electoral votes now. And I'm sure you know, Robert, for the first time, that's going to equal the state of New York.

SIEGEL: New York, yeah.

ELVING: Over the past century, New York's share of the Electoral College has fallen by one-third, while Florida's share has increased five times - five times. So you don't want to forget about California either when you're looking at all of these numbers. These projections really just reinforce the importance of premises of the Golden State with its 55 electoral votes.

We've had 16 presidential elections since World War II, California has been with the winner in 12 out of 16. And the few times that it has not been with the winner were some of the closest elections we've ever had.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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