Hurricane Sandy smashed into a presidential race that was about as close as it could be. According to a constantly updated poll-of-polls published by the invaluable political website Real Clear Politics, the Republican challenger, former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts is now roughly tied with U.S. President Barack Obama in the popular vote.
That tie, though, is essentially irrelevant, thanks to the Electoral College that allocates each state a number of votes in proportion to its size and, with two tiny exceptions, gives all of them to the candidate who wins most support there. As always, therefore, the battle has boiled down to only a few swing states. What is different this time is the narrowness of the margins in them.
Obama, it is now clear, will not win any state he did not win in 2008, and instead is fighting hard to hold onto the gains he made then. Some states have been beyond his reach from the outset: Indiana, which rather improbably went Democratic in 2008, has never featured on anyone's list of possible swing states this time around.
North Carolina, another longtime Republican state Obama managed to turn in 2008, never really has looked winnable for the president this time, though for a few days in late September he did move fractionally ahead there. It is still, technically, a swing state -- meaning its average polling margin is less than five per cent -- but, even though the Democrats went to the trouble of holding their party convention there, no one now expects the president to take it.
In order to secure the presidency, a candidate needs to win 270 of the Electoral College's 538 votes. States "worth" 201 votes can uncontroversially be assumed to go to Obama, including such huge stalwarts as California and New York, and tiny ones such as Delaware and Rhode Island. For Romney, states worth 191 votes in all are similarly locked up. The West Coast and the Northeast are solid for Obama, while the South and the Great Plains are solid for Romney, with two important exceptions in Florida and Virginia.
That leaves a rather large number of Electoral College votes -- 146, by RCP's reckoning -- still up in the air. If Romney is to win the electoral vote, as distinct from the popular one, he needs somehow to get from 191 to 270.
That is not quite as daunting as it sounds. In Florida, he has consistently led the polls since immediately after the first presidential debate, on Oct. 3, in which the president performed so badly. More to the point, all the signs are that the president has given up on the state, investing neither time nor much money there. Florida has suffered worse than almost any other state in the recession, and the recovery there has been particularly weak.
So it is not unreasonable to assume Florida, with its 29 votes, as well as North Carolina, with its 15, now sit in the Republican camp. On the other hand, Pennsylvania, though its 20 votes have ever been on the Republican wish list, does not seem minded to move out of the Democratic camp this time around, although it, too, remains a close race.
Add Florida and North Carolina to the 191 solid Romney votes, and he has 235. To win, another 35 votes are still needed. Where might he get them?
Two obvious possibilities lie thousands of miles apart, in Colorado and in Virginia, the other remarkable upset that Obama pulled off in 2008 by winning a state the Republicans had held since 1968. At the moment, both states are in a tie, according to RCP's rolling average. Romney had a wildly successful rally in liberal Denver last week, though, suggesting he might in fact take Colorado. Virginia is still anyone's guess.
Even if Romney adds Colorado's nine votes and Virginia's 13 to his probable haul, however, he still ends up with only 257, a tantalizing 13 votes short. Nevada's six votes are, we think, out of reach for him, because too many Latinos vote there. New Hampshire's four and Iowa's six are too small to help much, and Romney is trailing in both -- though in Iowa he has a chance, since all four of the state's main newspapers have endorsed him.
Which brings us, as with all recent elections, to the Midwest. If Romney could secure Ohio, with its 18 votes, he might well have the election in the bag. His momentum there may have stalled, though, leaving him a couple of points shy of victory. Both contenders have spent more time there than anywhere else, and neither seems to have acquired any momentum.
Romney does have a couple of other Midwestern options. He could win in Wisconsin, the home of his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan. The polls have been shifting in his favour since the first debate, but he still is trailing by a couple of points. Besides, Wisconsin carries only 10 votes, so he still would need to pick up one other state. Either Iowa or New Hampshire would do it: If it were New Hampshire, he would win the Electoral College by a breathless 271-267.
There is, however, a last possibility, if only a long shot. Last week's most intriguing news was that Michigan, Romney's native state, long thought to be solidly Democratic, is also on the move. A poll in the Detroit News had Obama's lead, despite the car-industry bailout, down to only 2.7 per cent, from 6.7 per cent a month ago.
If Michigan really is in play, Tuesday will be a very long night.