By Susan Lyon of NerdWallet

The nationwide 2012 election polling has President Obama and Mitt Romney neck-in-neck: but what does this really mean?  Obama and Mitt Romney are currently polling respectively at 47-46 (Gallup), 44-47 (Rasmussen), and so forth.  One story this morning even claimed, “according to the most recent polls, the national race literally could not be any closer.”

Mitt Romney

But are Obama and Romney really as close as they appear?

It turns out those polls don’t actually matter as much as you’d think.  When we look at the math that really matters,it tells a very different story.

Mitt Romney’s statistical chances of winning shape up to about 23% precisely because of the way our electoral college system is structured: much worse than the public opinion polls are showing.Based on the electoral vote distribution, our Electoral College model calculates Romney’s odds of winning by looking at the statistical likelihood of Romney taking the states generally accepted as up for grabs.  The model uses the accuracy of historical polls in predicting election outcomes, and it finds that Romney has only a 23% chance of beating Obama for the presidency.

Why is this?As you hopefully remember from your 8th grade civics class, the Electoral College process assigns each state a number of electors based on its number of House Representatives and Senators.  There are currently 538 electors total in the Electoral College, and a 270 vote majority of electoral votes must be obtained for a President to be elected.Here’s how it works:

  • Obama has 201 safe electoral votes. Romney has only 181. Only 12 states (156 electoral votes) could go to either candidate.
  • Therefore, Romney needs at least 89 of those 156 electoral votes to win (57%).
  • Based on the current polling in those states & historical polling accuracy, Romney’s statistical chance of getting those 89 votes is currently only 23%.

 Indeed, it’s possible – though unlikely – that come November’s election, Mitt Romney could win the popular vote but that Obama could win the presidency.If you recallthe 2000 Bush v. Gore election, this prospect made people a little bit upset.  Last Friday, Al Gore even called for the end of the Electoral College system, arguing that the presidency should be decided based upon the popular vote.Whether you agree with Gore or not, such a big change certainly won’t happen anytime soon.  For now, it remains true that the 270 votes threshold is the only thing that matters when it comes to winning the White House.

To be sure, public polling serves as a broad indicator of mass opinion on hot button issues to give candidates policy guidance.  But at the end of the day it’s the electoral votes that will determine our next Mr. President: this is what the media and punditry need to focus on.