Mitt Romney has been peaking just at the right time in his bid for the White House, rising in the polls and drawing larger-than-ever crowds while campaigning this week in Ohio, a key swing state. A little less than a month from Election Day, his footing against rival President Barack Obama has never been stronger. But thanks to the quirky way the United States selects its presidents, Romney's recent surge may not be enough to put him over the top.
Though typically the candidate who wins over the majority of American voters is the one who emerges victorious, the 2000 election served as a powerful reminder that it's really the Electoral College, a group of electors that are distributed among the states based on population, that ultimately matter most. In that razor-close contest between then Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, Gore won the popular vote, but lost the Electoral College to Bush.
And it's the Electoral College that poses a particular problem for Romney, because Obama has more paths to the winning number of votes (270) than his Republican challenger. That's despite increasingly promising poll numbers revealed in swing states like Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Virginia, and Ohio.
A good way of analyzing the current state of the race is to look back at the 2008 election, when Obama won with 365 electoral votes. Certain states he won are firmly in Romney's camp now, such as Indiana (11). Romney has also consistently held a slight edge in another, North Carolina (15), though it is still considered a battleground. Flipping those to Romney bring the president's total to 333 and Romney 205.
So how does Romney get to 270?
The GOP nominee needs to add Colorado (9), Florida (29), and Virginia (13) to reach 256. From there, he can win by taking Iowa (6) and Wisconsin (10). Or, without those two, he can win with Ohio (18). There are other paths, such as winning Nevada (6), Wisconsin, Iowa, and New Hampshire (4), but losing Colorado and Ohio. (Though to date, no Republican has won the presidency while losing Ohio).
But those scenarios mean he has to beat Obama in more than half of the swing states in play. According to Real Clear Politics, which averages state polls, Obama has a slight edge in Ohio, Virginia, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Iowa, despite Romney's improved numbers.
Beyond the polling, Democrats are hoping to capitalize on another advantage: get-out-the-vote efforts in swing states. While Republicans have been touting their ramped up ground game for weeks, (which has far surpassed their operation four years ago, both in the number of volunteers and offices) they have also been highlighting their number of "voter contacts" (phone calls, door knocks). But since the beginning of the year, the Obama campaign's grassroots arm has ramped up efforts to reach out to voters far ahead of the general election, while Romney was still working to secure the primary nomination.
Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, said that effort will make the difference on Election Day.
"We've never stopped growing the grassroots campaign that we revolutionized back in 2007 and 2008 and that grassroots campaign is a strategic advantage in the last days of this campaign," he said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. He added that the long-term investment the campaign made in maintaining their volunteer organization has allowed them to do two things better than they did last time – persuade undecided voters and turn out supporters.
"In a close election like this one, they are going to make the difference," Messina said.
Those may be key elements if Romney is able to continue outperforming Obama in the next two presidential debates and build Republican enthusiasm in the days leading up to the election.
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.