Sorry, Florida. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney may be ardently courting America's biggest battleground state, but their real passion is for Ohio. Because as un-American as it sounds, all votes are not created equal in a presidential election. Don't be offended. With barely two weeks before Nov. 6, it's all about the electoral math. And as uncertain and unpredictable as the campaign looks heading into the final stretch, Ohio remains President Obama's best opportunity to block a Romney win — and Romney's biggest hurdle.
That's why in the past week, four of the top 10 TV markets for campaign ads were in Ohio, and only one was in Florida (Orlando), according to NBC. That's why, since September, Romney and Paul Ryan have done 34 Ohio campaign events and 20 Florida events, while Obama and Joe Biden have done 11 campaign events in Florida and 18 in Ohio.
"If you take Ohio off the board for the Romney campaign they basically have to win seven of the remaining eight battleground states," said Robert Gibbs, a senior Obama campaign adviser.
A president is not elected by the popular vote, but by the electoral votes of each state, and most states are so solidly Democratic or Republican that modern presidential campaigns are waged in eight to 12 states that can swing to one side or another. A resident of deep-red Utah, say, or deep-blue New York, won't see any campaign activity except for fundraising because the candidates need not worry about carrying them.
It takes 270 electoral votes to win. Based on polling and political trends Obama has 191 electoral votes solidly in his corner and Romney 169. Throw in the states that are leaning toward Obama or Romney, and it brings Obama to 237 electoral votes and Romney to 206.
Still up for grabs are eight states with a combined 95 electoral votes: Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire and Florida.
With the right combination, either candidate can win.
For all the ups and downs of the 2012 campaign, the map has remained remarkably static through much of the past year. North Carolina, which Obama barely won in 2008, now appears to be leaning Romney, but overall the map still offers Obama more plausible paths to victory.
The president's campaign long ago spelled out four basic routes to a second term, and there also are multiple combinations of those paths. Assume he wins the same states John Kerry won in 2004, a total of 246 electoral votes.
• The Western path gives Obama New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Iowa, and brings him to 272 electoral votes.
• The Southern path, looking less likely based on recent North Carolina polling, gets him to 274 with wins in Virginia and North Carolina.
• The Midwest path involves winning Ohio and Iowa, giving Obama 270 votes.
• The simplest of all paths is through Florida. Win the Sunshine State's 29 electoral votes and Obama is re-elected with 275 electoral votes.
Romney has more challenging paths to victory, but they became considerably more plausible after Obama's weak first debate performance shifted polling. Consider:
• If the Massachusetts governor pulls in Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, he wins with 271 electoral votes — without Ohio.
• Florida, Virginia, Colorado, and Ohio gets Romney to 275.
• Florida, New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio and Colorado, and brings him 272 electoral votes.
• Without Florida? Romney would have to win Virginia, New Hampshire, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada to reach 272 electoral votes without Florida.
The good news for Romney is that the average of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics consistently shows him leading in Florida, albeit narrowly: by 2.1 percentage points.
Ohio: 'Last stand'
If Florida is the checkmate state, Ohio is the check state. Losing those 18 electoral votes makes Romney's path to victory much harder because he would nearly have to run the table of the remaining swing states.
The Buckeye State has voted for the winner of 27 of the past 29 presidential elections, and it looks considerably more hospitable to Obama, partly because its economy is stronger than most states and because of support for the auto bailout opposed by Romney.
Obama leads Ohio by an average of 2.4 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics.
"We laid out several routes to victory at the beginning of the campaign, and the bottom line is we have preserved all of the different map scenarios,'' said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. "The only Kerry state they've been able to put on the table is Wisconsin."
But the president's cushion is precarious at best. States that he won overwhelmingly or comfortably four years ago, including Iowa, Colorado and Virginia, are neck and neck. What's more, some recent polls suggest states long seen as safe for Obama, including Pennsylvania and Michigan, are tightening to within a few percentage points.
"If you're an incumbent campaign you want to narrow this down to as few states as possible. But the map has expanded and not contracted. … The fact is every state we're talking about and playing in are states that he won. They're not on our side of the 50-yard line in any state," said Romney political director Rich Beeson, suggesting Obama should be anxious about how close the race is in Ohio.
"If we were to win Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, they have to run the table on the rest of those states. So Ohio becomes their last stand," he said.
Too close to call
Just a month ago, before that first debate, analysts were speculating about whether Romney's loss would be big enough to drag down Republican candidates across the country. Not anymore. Virtually every battleground state looks like it could go either way, based on the average of recent polls. If Romney wins the states where the RealClearPolitics average shows him narrowly ahead or tied, the result would be 271 electoral votes for Obama and 267 for Romney.
There is another scenario nobody wants to see happen: 269 electoral votes for Obama and 269 for Romney.
It's not entirely far-fetched. If Obama wins all the states Kerry won in 2004 and then only adds New Mexico and Ohio, it's a tied election.
In that case, Romney is likely the next president, because the newly elected U.S. House would pick the winner, with all 50 state delegations casting a single vote each. Most analysts expect the GOP to maintain a strong majority in the House.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
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