Whichever campaign you ask, you'll get the same answer: "Now that early voting has begun across the country, we are winning, and we are looking forward to surging towards November 6."
The optimism for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney isn't entirely misplaced; both can see some positive poll numbers usable by the spin machine. Nonetheless, the reality is that we are heading for a close contest, one that will stretch into the early hours of November 7, or possibly beyond. According to RealClearPolitics, 10 states are considered toss-ups, with a total of 131 electoral votes at play.
Starting out West, here is a look at key states identified as swings by RCP, put in the context of what the polling numbers and anecdotal evidence suggest going forward. Polls are not always predictive of the final outcome, but they can be used to produce some insight into how the contest could possibly shape out.
My final prediction, using RCP's map, is that Romney will win the electoral college 289-259.
Nevada (6 EV)
Nevada's not a big state in terms of electoral votes. Then again, in a close electoral contest, any electoral votes are important.
In 2004, Nevada was the state that officially put Bush over the top, meaning its importance in the race is not exactly lost on the presidential candidates. With the addition of a fourth congressional district, the state gained another electoral college vote after the census. It's home to the West's early primary contests with the caucuses.
To summarize, Nevada's not huge but its importance in national politics is increasing.
Two Congressional races and a Senate race that are shaping up nicely for the Republicans suggest Romney has a fighting chance in the state. However, Las Vegas is the state's population center, and the service industry in Las Vegas is heavily unionized. Despite Nevadans' fierce sense of rugged individualism (and sizeable Mormon population, which one would think leans Romney), positive intangibles for Obama may carry the GOP's organizing capabilities, which aren't exactly stellar to begin with.
Colorado (9 EV)
Colorado is another Western state that has seen its importance in national politics grow in recent elections. Colorado's mix of West Coasters and Texans provides a blended voting population. Coloradoans used to take pride in having an evenly split Congressional delegation. Furthermore, within 10 years, the state went from Republican control almost all statewide offices and both Houses of the legislature to Democratic control of the same.
Colorado boasts the largest percentage of college degree holders outside of New England. Typically, they trend Republican in their voting tendencies. Thus, the last four years of Obama's administration will get a higher degree of scrutiny by the voters.
The Colorado GOP is run by Ryan Call, a longtime veteran of Republican politics in the state. Call was instrumental in establishing the CRNC's field program, which sends out four to five dozen field representatives to battleground states in critical presidential elections. He gets how important the grassroots and organization are to winning elections.
Iowa (6 EV)
Iowa's a moderate state, and every election comes up as a swing state in the polls. The state draws its political boundaries with a nonpartisan body, which helps to continue the moderate streak.
Every four years, the state also gets plenty of attention by the presidential candidates as the first primary contests now take place as soon as the election year begins. Iowa's approach to primaries results in a sophisticated electorate that values direct, grassroots participation in its politics. This lends itself well to support for the Obama campaign, which has had a strong grassroots organization in the state since his big win in the caucuses back in 2008.
The state's unemployment rate isn't suffering like the rest of the nation. Instead, its unemployment rate of 5.5% is actually the fourth lowest in the nation. Obama's approval ratings in Iowa are above 50%.
Also, its population has a higher share of religiously active citizens than the national average; more specifically, it has higher shares of Catholics and Lutherans. While most religious Iowans are not necessarily anti-Mormon, they are generally more conservative. That may, at some level, play a role in deciding between Obama and Romney.
Wisconsin (10 EV)
Wisconsin shouldn't be a swing state. Four years ago, Obama won by over 13%. Then again, four years ago Scott Walker wasn't governor and hadn't survived a recall.
But Wisconsin is a close neighbor of Illinois. Wisconsinites have a special nickname for those from Illinois: the acronym is FIBs. In other words, in 2012 the state returns to its former status of being a swing state, as it was in 2004 when Kerry won by less than 1% over Bush.
One of the organizational strengths in the state that Democrats relied on previously came from the public sector unions born in Wisconsin. As a result, Democrats saw a large contingent of members take a walk along with their dues. Walker's collective bargaining reforms are at the heart of that decline, ending the closed shops where unions could automatically collect dues from public employees. This effect became obvious in the recall election where Scott Walker won by a wider margin against the same opponent. The organization is itching to produce another huge victory.
And, oh yeah, Paul Ryan is a popular congressman from Wisconsin.
Michigan (16 EV)
Huh? Michigan's a swing state? The birthplace of the modern American automotive industry is a swing state? The home of the United Auto Works is a swing state?
Michigan's not exactly a close swing state, but the double-digit lead Obama saw there has evaporated, in large part due to the fact that the economy just isn't that great in the state. Unemployment has been creeping up since January. The state's workers, who would have been a large base of voters for Obama, have left. Just look at Detroit, which is a mere shell of its former greatness.
Michigan's current governor and nine of the state's 16 Congressional representatives are Republican, suggesting that the state isn't a liberal as its typical presidential history might suggest. Then again, one of the seats Republicans picked up by double digits in 2010 is in serious danger of returning to Democratic hands in this election cycle. That bodes well for the president, who holds a lead low, even if a shrinking one.
Ohio (18 EV)
Ohio is a perennial swing state. It's shaping up to play the decisive role that it did in 2004 in many scenarios this election season. The auto industry, which has shown a resurgence since the Obama bailout, appears to be buoying the president's chances there
But Republicans are claiming a strong performance in early voting that could translate into an election day victory. Moreover, the coal industry is a strong spot for Romney as he doesn't have the perceived animosity to their interests that Obama does. Point being, Romney and Obama are playing a chess match on a grand scale in Ohio.
Republicans are showing strong gains in early voting. True, Ohio's a open registration state, meaning that people vote as a Republican or Democrat in primaries but don't register as a party. That being said, patterns tend to be systematic, giving operatives a clear indication of who's a Republican and who's a Democrat. Republicans are showing a larger share of early voting than in 2008, and they will outpoll Democrats in the cold November polling. Romney's business-like approach to campaign will pay dividends when those votes come in.
New Hampshire (4 EV)
New Hampshire's a unique state in the Northeast. Drive around in that part of the country and you're likely to see a state license plate that says "Live Free or Die." That would be New Hampshire. The state's population has always had a strong libertarian bent, much like the Western swing state of Nevada. New Hampshire is a low tax haven, since it doesn't tax income or sales.
After Obama's lopsided victory against McCain in 2008, the state awarded Republicans with lopsided victories in state elections. Romney benefits from being a Northeasterner from Massachusetts with a penchant for avoiding tax increases to balance a budget. New Hampshirites are also well educated, with a large portion of the population having college degrees. They take pride in reading into the issues far more than other state populations. Their independence leads them to form their own opinions outside of the media and campaign spin machines.
Even so, the voters in New Hampshire are likely to give a Republican from their own backyard the nod over a Democrat who doesn't quite share their state's values.
Pennsylvania (20 EV)
Pennsylvania should be in the bag for the Democrats. Obama won the state four years ago by a wide margin. The state has a history of supporting the Democratic nominee in presidential contests in the last five contests, last voting for the Republican candidate in 1988. Democrat Bob Casey unseated former Senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum six years ago.
However, Governor Tom Corbett is a Republican, elected in 2010 during the GOP's big win in midterms. Even Bob Casey is seeing a staunch challenge from Republican Tom Smith. Still, Smith isn't exactly a prototypical Republican from the same mold as Romney. Therefore, Smiths' surge in the polls won't likely translate over to the presidential race.
Virginia (13 EV)
Virginia was one of the shockers of the 2008 election. Generally a solidly Republican state in the presidential election, its votes went to Obama in the historic election.
This upset matched demographic changes and trends in the state at the time; the state saw burgeoning populations of Latino voters who tend more towards the Democrats than Republicans. Additionally, the state's explosive growth in Northern Virginia suffered from the housing bubble's burst in 2008, lending itself well to the Democratic power consolidation in that election.
George Allen is also trying to reclaim the Senate seat he lost in 2006 to Howard Webb. As an open seat with Webb's decision to not seek reelection, former governor Kaine is holding a slight lead over Allen for the seat. Undoubtedly, this helps Obama.
However, grassroots organizations like the College Republicans are focusing massive resources in getting out Romney's vote in the state. Furthermore, the uber-conservative governor Bob McDonnell shows the state isn't necessarily an emerging Democratic stronghold.
Florida (29 EV)
Since 2000, Florida has been the focus of every story involving presidential politics.
It's home to the chair of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman-Shultz and her bestie Allan West. The electoral vote haul is tied with New York as the third largest nationally. Although Florida is a southern state, its population is so diverse that it is often referred to as a northern state. In other words, Florida is a lightening rod for the presidential race and always will be.
Florida is in Romney's control for one reason. His commitment to grassroots organizing has produced more direct voter contacts than McCain's campaign 77 times over. That will equate to at least 6 million successful voter contacts over the course of the campaign, and that kind of outreach produces results. When the debate drubbing took place three weeks ago, those voter contacts had a strong foundation to persuade voters to support Romney. Such efforts will push Romney towards a victory; Obama doesn't need necessarily need the state to win the electoral college vote.