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As Election Day approached in 2006, 2008 and 2010, I was reasonably confident about the kind of an election we would have, even if I wasnít sure about the exact outcome. Four years ago at this time, for example, we all had a pretty good idea who the next president would be.
But this cycle, I am less confident about everything, including who will win.
I can easily imagine Democrats netting a Senate seat or Republicans netting three. I can see President Barack Obama winning a second term by carrying Ohio, Virginia and Colorado, or challenger Mitt Romney winning all three states and the White House. And while I expect Republicans to hold the House quite comfortably, I can see the GOP picking up a seat or two or Democrats netting 10 seats.
With the lack of a strong partisan wave favoring one party or the other, itís unclear how undecided voters will break. This uncertainty is compounded by the fact that too many polls from normally reliable pollsters are contradictory.
Sure, averaging all polls (as some do) is one way to figure out where the voters really are, but I prefer an alternative approach: Look at the best polls and talk with the best pollsters to see what is likely to happen. This year, I have more questions than answers.
The ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll has consistently shown a tight national presidential race (though with Romney often ahead by 1 point), and the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which is now 10 days old (and ancient history), was a dead heat. Those kinds of numbers are not ideal for a sitting president, who canít count on breaking even among the late deciders. On the other hand, polling is an inexact science, so a race this tight is too close to call.
Key state polls donít clarify the situation. Obama seems to have an easier path to 270 electoral votes than does Romney, but tight contests in a handful of states leave enough doubt to raise questions about the electoral vote.
Is it possible for the challenger to win the popular vote and Obama to win the electoral vote? Of course.
President George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 2.4 points in 2004 but still lost Wisconsin and New Hampshire, two of this yearís swing states. In addition, Romney looks weaker than Bush was in two other swing states, Ohio and Nevada, and a third state that Bush carried very narrowly, Iowa, is uncertain.