Americans love to hear about an upset, even if it's your guy who's in danger. As the national polls bring us to a statistical dead heat with under a hundred days to go to the election, the disproportional focus on approval numbers and Romney v. Obama national polls has clouded much of what's really happening in the election.
That would be important information -- if we elected our presidents directly.
Except we don't. And it's a little more complicated than one might think.
First off, while our ballots list the names of the presidential candidates -- you mark down Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Gary Johnson or whomever -- we are not actually voting for those people directly. What we're doing is voting presidential electors. Each state has a certain number of electors based on their respective populations. We vote the electors for our particular state -- California voters won't be choosing electors in, say, Florida -- who then cast their ballots for President and Vice President.
In order to become President of the United States, you've got to land 270 electors, an absolute majority of the vote. If neither get it, the House of Representatives select a President, and the Senate selects the Vice President. It gets weirder, but we'll stop here.
The point being, we're voting in voters. These electors pledge to vote for a particular candidate, except they're not beholden to that if elected. Therefore, as in 2004, an elector can say, "I shall vote for John Kerry," and then when it comes time to cast that ballot, vote for John Edwards (the elector claims it was an accident). Largely this is done to make a political statement rather than actually changing the course of the election.
So, in looking at the political landscape as it is, where are our candidates?
Huffington Post would like to make it clear on every page they have that Obama's running ahead with a clear majority of 290 to 191. Rasmussen has it much closer, 247 - 191. Fox News is pretty much steering clear of showing any Electoral College map at this point in time. CNN shows it at Obama 247 - 206 Romney.
With this much variation on the polls, how does one figure out where the candidates really stand?
I personally recommend keeping an eye on RealClearPolitics' Electoral College Map, which takes every significant poll and provides you with an average, which eliminates real or perceived political bias, and simply goes, "hey, if all the pollsters put their numbers together, this is what it looks like." RCP is also less willing to call a state than others.
For example, in the heavy battleground of Ohio, every poll since June shows Obama with a lead both within and beyond the margin of error with very, very few polls before then tipping toward Romney, but because of the volatile nature of the campaign in this swing state, they know damn well things can change. Watch for this to solidify from a "Toss-Up" to a "Leans Obama/Romney" sometime in mid-October, when the debates are in full swing.
The truth of the matter is that it's going to be next to impossible to know at this point in time. We've got over three months to the election, with three Preisdential Debates occurring throughout October. Very frequently those have, at the very least, solidified the feelings of voters who may have still kept an open mind. The Palin-Biden Vice Presidential debate largely showed in favor of Biden, but Palin's showing in the midst of lowered expectations kept hopes alive.
Meanwhile, in 1992, the stinging performance of Ross Perot was balanced out by his running mate's unfocused, unprepared showing, largely keeping his numbers stagnant after hemming and hawing over whether or not to stay in the race. Before dropping out and subsequently re-entering, Perot had frontrunner status in both Texas and California, which would be unheard of today.
As of now, in the weeks running up to these debates, the rumblings are beginning on who is more "gaffe-prone." Depending on where you look, the President is a bumbling, ignorant child, while elsewhere Romney is an unfeeling, uncaring robot who doesn't understand why his remarks are taken so poorly. These will be the preconceived beliefs about either candidate that they will have to exploit and battle, and it's telling that, at the end of the day, the only conversations of any substance regarding the debates, beyond your typical talking points, is the question of personality. Keep an eye on the likability ratings; they give a lot more information than national approval ratings.
But let's bring it back to the Electoral College. RCP knows that people want to see the entire map given to one candidate or another, so they have a second map, though notably, is never the default: No Toss-Up States. In looking at that, the average of all commonly accepted polls, including the (alleged) right-leaning Rasmussen, shows Obama winning by a strong margin, 332 to 206.
With a large number of the electorate not even paying attention until a VP is picked and debates are on the way, this data means very little. However, it far more accurately reflects the state of the election than any national poll, which is irrelevant to our current electoral college system.