US election: Everything you need to know

2012-11-05 08:38
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama laugh after the first presidential debate in Denver. (File, AP)

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama laugh after the first presidential debate in Denver. (File, AP)

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Who is involved?

On Tuesday a good portion of the 150 million eligible voters in the USA will travel to the polls to elect their next president. They will pick between incumbent Democrat Barack Obama (and his vice president Joe Biden), and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (and his running mate, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan).
But this election will not be just for the presidency. There are two other major elected arms to the US government: the House of Representatives, which has 435 members who serve two year terms, and the Senate, 100 members who serve six-year terms, which are staggered so that around one-third are up for election every two years.

Representatives are all up for election, and are picked by congressional district (ie constituencies), while each state has two officials in the Senate. All bills, before being signed into law by the president, must be cleared by both the House and the Senate – these races are vital in this election.

Currently, Republicans control the House of Representatives and the Democrats control the Senate – polling would suggest this election will maintain the status quo.
Who will win?

Nationally, the candidates are polling evenly. CNN has both men with 49% support, while polls before today have hovered in the same region.
However, the USA has a strange way of electing its president called the Electoral College. Each state, dependent on population, holds a certain number of electoral votes, of which a candidate needs 270 to take a majority and win the election.

Populous states like California hold many votes (55) while sparsely populated states like Wyoming or Alaska have very few (3). Whoever gets the most votes in a state gets all of its Electoral College votes.

This system, however, means that states which are strongly Democrat or strongly Republican hardly get a look in when it comes to presidential politics, because all of the candidates energy goes into states which change their minds – referred to as swing states.

For this election, only eight states are being hotly contested: Florida (29 electoral votes), Ohio (18), New Hampshire (4), Iowa (6), Colorado (9), Nevada (6), North Carolina (15) and Virginia (13).
All of the other states are really predisposed to vote for one of the candidates, which means that Obama will start with around 247 likely Electoral College votes, while Mitt Romney will start with 191. With only 270 votes required, one would have to give the advantage to the incumbent, who only needs 23 Electoral College votes to win.
How can they win?

If we take the swing states where either contender is up by 2 percentage points on average for all recent polls, Romney will win North Carolina, while Obama will win Ohio, Iowa and Nevada, which means Obama will win even if Romney wins all of the other swing states.
Of the remainder – Florida, New Hampshire, Virginia and Colorado – Obama is still poised to take more of them. While Romney looks like he will squeak Florida (and he must, or Obama will win the election easily), Obama looks favourable in the other three.
Although the New Hampshire legislature is strongly Republican, it is a fairly moderate state, and Romney's primary campaign strategy was a "severely conservative" journey when it came to most policies, but particularly social issues.

It is worth pointing out that less than a year ago New Hampshire, one of the few states which permits gay marriage, voted overwhelmingly to retain it. Democrats have made social issues a focal electoral point, and this could tip the scales into their favour. Even Republicans in New Hampshire seem to err on the liberal side of things.
In Virginia, where polling for the presidential candidates is virtually a tie, the big clue here might be the Senate race between former governors Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine. Kaine is leading in major polls with a decent sample size and has seemingly been the candidate with momentum for over a month now. It is unlikely that folks filling in ballots on Tuesday will vote for Kaine and Romney, and it is for this reason I'd slide Virginia into the likely Obama column.
Adam Serwer in Mother Jones identified that pollsters tend to undercount the amount of Latino voters – polling suggests Latinos back Obama by around 40 percentage points – which would mean the neck-and-neck polling in Colorado might not be so neck-and-neck.

This isn't just speculation: In 2010, Democrat Senate candidates in Colorado and Nevada were three points behind their opponents but ended up winning – one by six points!

And the reasoning is that Latino voters are undersampled, polled in English (According to Serwer English-speaking Latinos lean Republican) and there is a bias toward those with fixed-line telephones, as opposed to poor people who tend to use cellular phones.

The US Census Bureau puts the Latino population of Colorado at 20.9%, so this is a significant under-reporting of Obama voters. My money is on Obama to win Colorado.
If I am correct on all counts here, this will mean Obama wins 303 Electoral College votes, while Romney will win 235.
How could things go wrong?

A possible tie: Both candidates could conceivably win 269 Electoral College votes in which case two states become vitally important: Maine and Nebraska, whose votes are given out by voting district.

Obama won an Electoral College vote in 2008 because Omaha, Nebraska's largest city, voted overwhelmingly in his favour. The same applies in Maine – Romney could squeeze an extra vote there in its Republican-leaning second congressional district.
Fifty shades of voting laws: Voting laws are done at the state level, which means each state has its own way of deciding how to determine its electoral college allocation. Some states are awful at it.

Florida has seen people waiting in early voting queues for up to eight hours. Ohio's early voting has been contested in court virtually up until early voting ends, and, at one point, had different voting hours in different congressional districts.

In Pennsylvania and Arizona the governments sent out election information packs with the wrong date of the election on them. Efforts to enforce voter identification laws in some states were handled so badly that a fair amount if people may not turn up to vote, thinking they have the wrong documents.
The weather: Although New York, New Jersey and Maryland will vote heavily in Obama's favour, the process of voting could be a nightmare in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy – power remains out in many places, road systems were hit hard so transportation of ballots could be affected.
When will we know who won?

Counting and preliminary results will begin virtually as soon as the polls start closing. Here are the times they begin to close for each state, bearing in mind that some states are in more than one timezone.
All times are South African Standard Time:

Indiana, Kentucky.
Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia.
North Carolina, Ohio, West Virginia.
Connecticut, Delaware, Washington DC, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas.
Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Wyoming.
Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah.
Alaska, California, Hawaii, Washington State.


- Take a look at our US Election Poll Prediction map

Read more on:    barack obama  |  simon williamson  |  mitt romney  |  us  |  us elections 2012

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