Less than a week before the US Presidential election and we are, as horse racing parlance has it, "in the stretch" before the finishing line. Will Barack Obama or John McCain become the 44th President of the USA ?
If the national and state polls are any guide, Obama has to be the very strong favourite. He has led in every national poll for weeks. That said, the margin ranges wildly from a less-than-comfortable 2% to a landslide-grabbing 13% in others. Daily "tracker" polls serve to confound the issues with tiny movements of 1% in either direction built up into headline news stories. All these polls use different methodologies and weightings of voter sample - some are "likely voters", others are "registered voters" (in the US, you have to register to vote, a bit like being on the electoral roll in the UK).
Now, the American election is NOT decided by who gets the most votes. If it were, Al Gore would have won in 2000. The "popular vote", as it is termed, is not the means by which the outcome is decided. Each vote cast goes against the votes of the state and the states each have a number of votes in what is termed the "electoral college".
The Electoral College has 538 delegates - the numbers are based proportionately on the population of each state so California has 55 delegates as the largest state, Texas 34, New York 31 and so on while the smallest states in terms of population such as Alaska, Montana and Delaware have three. The candidate getting the most vote in a particular State wins all the delegates for that State so get 270 delegates and you win the Presidency.
If winning states is important, then looking at the polls within the states must be equally important and these tell a different story to national tracker polls. In the state polls, Barack Obama is doing very well. There is plenty of evidence that the county and State-wide organisation of Obama and the Democrats is superior in terms of money, volunteers and ideas to the Republicans in those states Obama needs to win to be certain of getting the 270 votes he needs. This is being backed up by early voting numbers (it's possible to vote early in the USA) which suggest a very strong Democrat effort in places like Florida and Georgia.
In 2004, George W. Bush won 286 delegates and the defeated Democrat, John Kerry, 252. Let's start with the 252 delegates won by Kerry. Obama has substantial leads in all these states including the prizes of California (55) and New York (31) as well as Obama's home state of Illinois (21) and Michigan (17). Pennsylvania was a narrow win for the Democrats last time and is the only realistic hope of a Republican "gain" but even here Obama has a significant lead ranging from 7 to 13 points.
So, the 252 "Kerry states" look secure for Obama.
Let's look at the 286 Republican delegates from 2004 -
Iowa (7) and New Mexico (5) look certain to go to Obama - he has double-figure leads in both.
In Nevada (5), Colorado (9), Ohio (20) and Virginia (13), latest polls give Obama a seven-point advantage. He needs only one of these to become President. My guess is he will win all four.
Florida (27) was the state that gave the 2000 election to George W. Bush. While he won it more easily in 2004, the Democrats have been working the state strongly and have a very strong county organisation. Early voting returns suggest a healthy Democrat lead and while polls give Obama only a 3-point advantage, I think he will win Florida by a larger margin.
North Carolina (15) has voted Republican at every election since 1968 and Bush won the state by twelve points last time. However, Obama won a spectacular victory in the Democratic primary and has energised african-american voter registration. The polls are tight but I think Obama will win this state.
Indiana (11) is another traditional Republican state which last went to the Democrats in the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964. The polls are much tighter here this time - Bush won 60-39 in 2004 - but I think McCain will just hold this one.
In three states, latest polls show a dead heat. These are North Dakota (3), Montana (3) and Missouri (11). It shows the degree to which Obama is challenging the Republicans in their strongholds that all three are now possible for Obama. I think Obama will win Missouri and North Dakota while the Republicans will hold Montana.
The one other state that I think will cause an upset next week is Georgia (15). This is not as staunchly Republican as other southern states and was very close in both 1992 and 1996. IF Obama is doing better than Clinton in 1996 nationally, he could take Georgia. In addition, early voting and registration numbers are suggesting a strong swing to the Democrats.
There is a slight chance McCain could lose his home state of Arizona and Mississippi might fall too if a landslide were on the cards but I suspect both will just stay GOP along with the remaining states including Texas where McCain's ten-point lead should be enough.
So, that would make the electoral college votes 382-156 in Obama's favour - a thumping victory on a vote of around 54%-45%. It would resemble the 379-159 victory of Clinton in 1996 in size though the state map itself would be very different.
It is of course entirely possible that McCain will rally and the Republicans will beat off some of the more optimistic Obama assumptions I have stated here but it seems hugely difficult for McCain to win himself on the current numbers. The Republicans could afford to lose all the Kerry states plus Iowa and New Mexico but that's all. Winning everywhere else would get them home 274-264 but I simply can't see it.
The state polls look too bad in too many places for McCain. His organisation at county and state level has been out-spent, out-manned and out-thought in too many places that matter. Obama still has large amounts of money to buy TV and radio ads between now and Tuesday leaving McCain/Palin reliant on Fox News for example.
Unless something dramatic happens in the next five days, Barack Obama will win the US Presidential election next week.