The most important election of the year takes place in just less then three months when the next American President is chosen. The incumbent President, Barack Obama, and his Vice-President, Joseph Biden, will square off against the Republican challenger Mitt Romney and his newly-announced running mate and Vice-Presidential candidate, Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Now, you'd think that this election would be fairly simple - the candidate with the most votes wins. Usually, that's the case but not always because what you have in the US is NOT one Presidential race but fifty separate races, one in each State. The four candidates mentioned above will appear on the ballot in every state but other fringe candidates may appear on the ballot in some states - they can't win overall and they'll do well to get more than 2% of the vote anywhere but they will be there.
Each State contributes a number of delegates to what is known as the Electoral College and it is that College which in fact determines the outcome. The Electoral College exists to recognise the inequity in population between states - for example, Rhode Island with it's 1,050,000 people (approximately the population of Surrey) is far smaller than California with its 38 million people. Clearly, if all the states had the same number of Electoral College votes (as they do Senators for example), a vote in Rhode Island would be far more important than a vote in California.
So, there is a proportionality within the Electoral College - Rhode Island sends 3 delegates and California 55. Even that, as the more observant among you will have noticed, isn't fairly proportional either as on that basis California should have 90 or more delegates but it's better than nothing.
The winner of a State (whether by one vote or one million) takes all the delegates for that State (Maine and Nebraska operate slightly differently but I won't bore you with that now). To gain a majority in the Electoral College, a candidate needs to gain 270 delegates (there are 538 available).
Therefore, for any candidate, it's less about accumulating votes than it is about winning states and especially populous ones.
It's also perfectly possible, as 2000 showed, for one candidate to poll more votes and for another to win a majority of Electoral College votes. Piling up big majorities in states isn't important if you are losing other states by a fraction so it's about distributing your vote and trying to win across the country.
Inevitably, the Democrats and Republicans have areas of dominance and these have shifted round in US history. The Southern states like Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississipi were once solidly Democrat (this was a leftover from the Civil War when the victorious Union forces were commanded by a Republican president in the form of Abraham Lincoln) but are now a Republican stronghold as the Republicans have become the conservative party in the US and the Democrats the more liberal party.
The Democrats dominate the West (including the most populous state, California, which once was a Republican bastion in the era of Ronald Reagan and Jerry Ford) and the North-East where they have traditionally been strong.
In 2008, Barack Obama polled 53% to John McCain's 46% and won the Electoral College by 365 to 173 but in terms of states won by only 28 to 22. The Republicans win a lot of small states, the Democrats a small number of larger states.
The Republicans win in the south, the Midwest and the Plains States while the Democrats swept the North-East and the West Coast.
According to the excellent Realclearpolitics website, based on the current national and State polls (and the latter are arguably far more meaningful), the Democrats have 142 certain delegates, 37 "likely" and 58 "leaning" equalling 237 delegates. The Republicans have 76 certain delegates, 55 "likely" and 60 "leaning" delegates equalling 191.
Remember, a candidate needs 270 to win so Obama is currently 33 short while Mitt Romney is 79 short. There are 110 seats in what is known as the "toss-up" column which means neither candidate has established a clear lead.
Of these, Florida with its 29 delegates is hugely important as is Ohio with 18 and North Carolina 15 followed by Virginia on 13 and Wisconsin on 10. Then come Colorado on 9, Iowa and Nevada on 6 and finally New Hampshire on 4.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, Romney leads only in North Carolina and Iowa while Obama has small but solid leads in Ohio, Virginia and Nevada. The other states are close with different polls showing slightly differing results.
As I see it, Romney HAS to win Florida and Ohio at the very least - IF Obama wins either or both, it's all over. Currently, Obama is 1.5% in front in Florida which is statistically insignificant but nearly 5% up in Ohio which is a big lead.
Romney needs his Vice-Presidential choice of Paul Ryan to have an immediate and galvanising effect and it may well do that for BOTH the Republican AND the Democrat faithful. In the US, independents are critical but this group is breaking strongly for Obama.
There's a long way to go - the Conventions in August and the debates nearer the election. I suspect the Presidential debates between Romney and Obama will be the political equivalent of baseline tennis with neither man doing anything too daring or risky. The Vice-Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan may be much more interesting.
Romney has currently a huge task in getting to 270 delegates and piling up majorities in Montana and Oklahoma is of no help. He needs to win populous states such as Florida an Ohio. Obama's position is far stronger - the last incumbent President to lose was George H.W Bush in 1992 and that was an unusual election with Ross Perot hiving off a significant part of the Republican vote and it was also after twelve years of Republican rule.
Jimmy Carter lost in 1980 to Ronald Reagan but Carter was the unlikely beneficiary of the post-Watergate travails of the Republicans in 1976 and was humiliated internationally and domestically by the Iranians in 1980.
Obama is not going to be pilloried like Carter and normally an incumbent President doesn't lose - George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon all won second terms in the past forty years.
2016 will be a fascinating election when, as in 2008, no incumbent will be on either ticket and both Democrats and Republicans will be holding Primaries.
That's for another day - right now, Obama is in a strong if not completely dominant position. Romney has a lot to do and while he has plenty of financial support, he is up against one of the shrewdest political operators of recent times. At the moment, he's second best by some way.