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Tracking Polls Say Election No Sure Thing

To listen to the Obama campaign and many liberal pundits the last few days, the presidential election is a foregone conclusion and the president is a sure bet to be re-elected. But even though there’s no question the Democrats gained ground over the last week, the latest national tracking polls tell a different story. The president is ahead in none of the four most recent national tracking polls. Mitt Romney has a slender one-percentage point lead in both the Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls taken over the last few days, while he is tied with the president in the CNN/Opinion Research and the Monmouth/SurveyUSA/Braun poll. Taken together, and even if one is inclined to believe one more than another, the quartet of surveys illustrates that the race remains very close with either candidate in position to win.

The polls, which continue to show Romney leading among independents by a large margin, also demonstrate that the key to victory tomorrow will be turnout. Romney continues to do better among likely voters than among all those registered, something that will require Democrats to get all of their supporters out to vote. But if Republican enthusiasm continues to run high, it will be difficult for Democrats to replicate the 2008 electorate, in which they had a huge partisan identification advantage. These national numbers may not translate into an edge for Romney in individual battleground states like Ohio. That means we are looking at a possible replay of 2000, when the winner of the popular vote did not win the Electoral College. Yet Romney’s camp has to believe that if they wind up with more votes overall, that is bound to translate into some upsets in swing states where most of the generally less scientific statewide polls continue to show Obama leading. That may not be how things play out, but these national numbers have to sow some doubts in the minds of Democratic strategists who know the odds of the loser of the popular vote getting 270 electoral votes is still a long shot.

Nevertheless, a popular vote victory is no consolation prize in a presidential election. The only thing that counts is getting to 270 and if, despite a virtual tie in the national totals, Obama manages to hold onto leads in Ohio and the other swing states, these numbers won’t matter much. Even more important, if Obama can manage to win Virginia — a state where the majority of polls still give him an advantage, it won’t matter much how Romney does in the northern battlegrounds.

Throughout the last few weeks, conservatives have disputed the validity of polls that were based on samples that showed far more Democrats voting this year than Republicans, as was the case in 2008. But that argument is about to be resolved. If our expectations–that the 2012 electorate is going to be nothing like the hope and change wave that swept Barack Obama into the White House–turn out to be based on a false assumption, then most of the pollsters who produced these surveys can take a bow. If not, this may be as close to a rerun of the 1948 “Dewey Defeats Truman” embarrassment for pollsters as any of us have lived to see.

These final numbers make clear that after months of campaigning, and probably more than a billion dollars spent by both sides in the contest, neither candidate has any kind of real edge in the national vote. Last week, New York Times blogger Nate Silver believed President Obama had the equivalent of a three-point lead in a football game with three minutes to play. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that we’re heading into the final moments of this presidential contest with the score probably tied. What we don’t know is which team has the ball and how close they are to the other team’s goal line. We’ll find out tomorrow night.