Despite a Strong Debate Campaign, Romney's Path to 270 Remains Steep

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National polls show a tight race, but the campaign has stabilized and the map still favors Obama.

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While not quite a Luddite, I do find myself averse to any more technology than is necessary to get through life and do my job. So on Monday night, I found myself in a California hotel room, watching the final presidential debate on CNN (so I could watch their squiggly lines of undecided voters rating the candidates on dial meters), while my laptop was watching a second dial test of "Walmart Moms" in Orlando, Florida, all the while also catching the Twitter reactions of an array of journalists and political operatives from both sides on my iPad. Although the debate was not nearly as interesting and fun to watch as the first two, the sensory overload made up some of the gap.

President Obama seemed to win the debate on points, but Mitt Romney seemed to take the course pass/fail and clearly passed. Yet it seems unlikely that this third debate will have nearly the impact that the first debate had in boosting Romney and hurting Obama, or that the second debate had in stabilizing the race. Clearly, Romney wanted to come across as nonthreatening and broadly acceptable; he also wanted to clear the threshold for being commander-in-chief. He did not take risks, being careful on a subject that is not in his lane.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that the momentum that Romney built up after his first debate victory had continued to grow, but my sense was that it was arrested by an Obama win in the second debate, albeit less decisive than the Romney's victory in the first. Going into this third and final debate, the national polls looked dead even, and, coming out of the debate, my guess is that the polls will still be dead even.

But if the national polls are looking even, that doesn't mean that the election is an even-money contest. Although this race is very close, the road to 270 electoral votes is considerably more difficult for Romney than it is for Obama. The president starts off with undisputed leads in 16 states and the District of Columbia with 237 electoral votes, 33 short of the 270 needed to win. Romney begins with equally clear leads in 23 states with 191 electoral votes, 79 short of a victory. Nine states with 110 electoral votes are in the admittedly broad Toss-Up column (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin). Obama needs to win 30 percent of those Toss-Up electoral votes; Romney needs 72 percent of those votes.

Not all of the states in this Toss-Up column are equal. Most private polls show Romney with low single-digit leads in North Carolina and Virginia. For the sake of argument, let's give Romney both states, adding 28 additional electoral votes to the 191 that Romney already led in, for a total of 219 -- 51 short of a victory.

At the same time, Obama has a lead in Nevada that is wider than any advantage that Romney has in North Carolina and Virginia, so let's add the Silver State's six electoral votes to the Obama 237, bringing his total to 243, 27 short of 270.

That leaves six remaining states -- Colorado (9), Florida (29), Iowa (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18), and Wisconsin (10) -- with a total of 76; Obama needs 27 of the 76 while Romney needs 51. But the challenge for Romney isn't just that he needs to win two-thirds of the "true" Toss-Up state electoral votes. It's that in five of the six (Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Wisconsin) Obama is still leading in most polling, particularly the last two, while in Florida, it seems awfully close to dead even. If Obama carries Ohio and Wisconsin, where he is ahead in most polling, he gets the 270 with one electoral vote to spare, so Romney could sweep Colorado, Florida, Iowa, and New Hampshire and still come up short. No matter how you cut it, Ohio is the pivotal state, and it isn't just the history of having gone with every winner from 1964 on and with no Republican ever capturing the White House without it.

To be sure, this race is so close that it clearly can go either way, but the Obama electoral path looks less steep than the one Romney must traverse, and the final debate seems unlikely to have altered that fact.

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Charlie Cook is editor and publisher of The Cook Political Report and a political analyst for National Journal.

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