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How the American presidential election will be won and lost

By Farooq A. Kperogi As Election Day approaches, it’s no longer clear what to believe—or what to expect. Will this election be a historic bl...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

As Election Day approaches, it’s no longer clear what to believe—or what to expect. Will this election be a historic blowout for Obama? Will McCain creep stealthily from the rear and snatch victory from Obama? Or will Obama and McCain split the election in a way that leaves each just short of victory?

The polls, once reliable measures to prognosticate the outcome of American presidential elections, have been hopelessly unhelpful in the waning moments of this campaign season. While some polls show that the race is tightening, others show that the election would be a shoo-in of historic proportions for Obama.

Other polls show that, in the last few days, McCain has actually sped past Obama by a bare but nonetheless symbolically significant margin. Still others indicate that an unusually high number of registered voters said they are still persuadable, that is, they can change their allegiance to any candidate before Election Day.

These unusually divergent poll outcomes have conspired to heighten the sense of anxiety and unease about tomorrow’s elections. Predictably, several recent studies have highlighted extremely high levels of election anxiety among, especially Obama’s female, supporters.

An Associated Press-Yahoo! News poll out on Saturday, for instance, discovered that “more John McCain supporters feel glum about the presidential campaign while more of Obama's are charged up over it.”

The polls are poles apart

It is customary for election watchers here to closely monitor the polls in the twilight of presidential campaigns for hints of who might win the race.

Traditionally, the leading candidate’s lead often slumps fairly noticeably in the last days in part because of what pundits here call “buyer’s remorse” and in part because being in an underdog position tends to invite the pathos of certain voters.

Gallup polls, America’s most closely watched daily tracking poll (which has accurately predicted all presidential elections except one), said on Saturday that it has found the “largest lead for Obama among likely voters to date.” According to its survey of “traditional likely voters,” “expanded likely voters” and “all registered voters,” Obama leads McCain by 52 percent to 41 percent.

Other nationally regarded polls that give Obama this kind of gigantic lead over McCain are: Diageo/Hotline (which shows that voters prefer Obama over McCain 51 percent to 44 percent) ABC/Washington Post (which shows that voter preference for Obama is 53 percent against McCain’s 44 percent) and CBS/New York Times (which has Obama at 54 percent and McCain at 41 percent).

Now, if these polls are accurate, it is reasonable to predict that Obama is set for a gargantuan romp against McCain. It’s just that other equally respectable pollsters have different numbers.

For instance, TIPP, which prides itself on being “the Nation's Most Accurate Pollster,” has Obama ahead of McCain in its November 1 polls by only a modest margin. Its survey shows that 47.9 percent of voters said they would vote for Obama while 43.4 said they would vote for McCain, and that about 9 percent are still undecided. Rasmussen, an equally reliable polling firm, shows the same margins.

However, Zogby International, another reputable pollster, indicates in its latest update that McCain is not only progressively eating into Obama’s lead but has, in fact, overtaken him, although by a statistically insignificant margin.

"The three-day average holds steady, but McCain outpolled Obama today, 48% to 47%,” said John Zogby, the founder and CEO of Zogby International, who is an Arab American. “He is beginning to cut into Obama's lead among independents, is now leading among blue collar voters, has strengthened his lead among investors and among men, and is walloping Obama among NASCAR voters.”

Will this year be a throwback to 1948 when the best polling firms in America failed to accurately predict the presidential election? Reputable polling firms, including Gallup, had indicated a landslide victory for the Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, and newspaper headlines after Election Day screamed that he had won the election. But it turned out that Harry S. Truman, the Democratic candidate, in fact, won the election.

Concerns over voter fraud grow

It is not only the divergence of the polls that is giving people cause for caution in predicting the outcome of the election; there are also widespread concerns that Tuesday’s election could be undermined by widespread voter fraud.

On July 24, 2003, the New York Times had called attention to the unreliability of electronic voting machines and their amenability to manipulation. It reported that “The software that runs many high-tech voting machines contains serious flaws that would allow voters to cast extra votes and permit poll workers to alter ballots without being detected.”

Many political analysts believe President George Bush benefited from electronic vote tampering in the states of Florida and Ohio in 2000 and 2004 respectively. This is the subject of a brand new book titled Loser Takes All: Election Fraud and The Subversion of Democracy, 2000 – 2008, which is edited by Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at New York University.

The book’s contributors provide evidence that Republicans have manipulated electronic voting machines to rig themselves into power, especially since 2000, and predict that “the Republicans will attempt to steal the presidential election in 2008.”

Their fears are being born out by reports from several states to the effect that people who have bothered to watch how their votes are recorded on the electronic voting machines have discovered that votes for Obama are often switched to McCain.

Officials blame this on problems resulting from “recalibrating” the machines after a vote. However, curiously, so far, there has never been any reported instance of votes for McCain switching to Obama. Video clips of voters who recorded their votes for Obama going to McCain have become YouTube sensations.

There have also been reports in liberal blogs of systematic attempts to purge hundreds, in some cases thousands, of potential Obama supporters from the voter register in such states as North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, and Colorado. This is fueling the sentiment among Obama supporters that if their candidate loses tomorrow’s election, it would be on account of voter fraud.

But these concerns are mutual. On October 17, the McCain and Obama campaigns, for instance, swapped accusations of widespread voter fraud. The McCain campaign alleged that the millions of new voters that have been registered recently, whom many analysts say disproportionately favor Obama, are false. According to the right-wing, the McCain campaign “warned that illegally cast ballots could alter the results of the election and undermine the public's faith in democracy.”

However, this concern doesn’t seem to be legitimate. A 2007 study by the New York University School of law concluded that "it is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."

Obama campaign's top lawyer, Bob Bauer, on the other hand, accused Republicans of irresponsibly "plotting" to suppress legitimate votes and to "sow confusion and harass voters and complicate the process for millions of Americans."

Delayed October Surprise or November surprise?

This past weekend, the campaigns suspended their mutual accusations over voter fraud. Obama appeared to have been hit by a potentially devastating news bit about his aunt who has been discovered to be living illegally in the United States. But just when the McCain camp was stealthily celebrating this development, they got their own fair share of a November surprise: Sarah Palin was suckered by comedians who embarrassed her in their radio show.

The Obama campaign’s overweening confidence was jolted over the weekend when the Associated Press broke the story of the illegal status of Obama’s late father’s half sister, who first came to the U.S. on the invitation of Obama.

The woman, identified as Zeituni Oyango, was mentioned in Obama’s best-selling autobiography Dreams From My Father. She was first invited by Obama to the United States--to witness his swearing-in as a U.S. senator. She returned to Kenya after Obama’s inauguration and came back again on her own. She applied for asylum but her application was rejected and was ordered to be deported back to Kenya.

But she somehow escaped and has been living in the slums of Boston ever since. Her story was first broken on October 30 by TimesOnline, the online version of the British newspaper by the same name. But the story did not get traction in the United States until the Associated Press broke it on Saturday and added a fresh dimension: that Obama’s aunt is here illegally and has contributed money to the Obama campaign.

There are two ways this story could potentially hurt Obama.

First, it dramatizes Obama’s “otherness” in more concrete ways than the McCain camp had tried vainly to do. Second, because records show that the woman contributed up to $265 to the Obama campaign even though she is neither a U.S. citizen nor a lawful permanent resident, she will help to feed the Republican Party-inspired allegations that Obama’s unprecedented financial buoyancy is consequent on his receiving illegal donations from non-Americans.

However, although American voters can be notoriously fickle and amenable to be persuaded by what would strike non-Americans as non-issues, Obama has so far demonstrated an uncanny capacity to overcome revelations that would have sunk the campaigns of many candidates.

What appears to be the saving grace for Obama is the revelation on Saturday that Sarah Palin fell for a cheap prank by two Canadian comedians. Two well-known Montreal comedy duo Marc-Antoine Audette and Sebastien Trudel known as the Masked Avengers put a call through to Sarah Palin, which she picked. One of the comedians pretended to be French president Nicholas Sarkosky.

Palin believed him. And she went on for over 5 minutes discussing inane issues with the “president.” This conversation further betrayed her shallowness and ignorance of foreign policy issues.

This is now dominating the news cycle. It appears that the effect of these two events—news of Obama’s half aunt’s illegal stay in the U.S. and Sarah Palin’s inability to detect that she was being tricked even in the face of so many red flags during the conversation—cancel each other out.

What if Obama and McCain are tied?
Given the unreliability of the opinion polls and the fears that electronic voting fraud could significantly up McCain’s numbers, there is the real possibility that there would be no clear winner in this election.

The last time this happened, according to American presidential historians, was in 1824. A more recent, though less dramatic, example was in 2000.

So what happens in the event of a tie? Well, if there is a tie, the U.S. House of Representatives, which is currently controlled by Democrats, will vote to decide the next president. Of the 435 seats in the House, Democrats control 236 while Republicans control 199. But these numbers could change after tomorrow’s election because many House seats are up for grabs too.

Should Democrats lose their majority after Tuesday’s election and be unable to muster enough votes to install Obama as president, things would get more complicated.

"This would be the seamy side of democracy, the lobbying and the money would be so intense," Allan Lichtman, professor of history at American University told the Associated Press.

In the United States, unlike most parts of the world, presidents are not elected by popular vote. So on November 4 when Americans go out to vote, they would not be voting directly for the presidential candidates of their choice; they would instead be voting for a slate of state representatives (called electors) who would form an Electoral College that will directly elect the President and Vice President.

The votes of the Electoral College would itself need to be ratified by the Congress in January before they can be valid. This is usually a mere formality, though.

This means, in effect, that unlike in Nigeria, for instance, American presidential elections are not determined by a nationwide popular vote but rather on a state-by-state basis by state representatives. Each state, along with the District of Columbia, the nation’s capital, is allotted a number of votes in the Electoral College that correspond to the number of representatives it has in Congress.

To become president, a candidate must win at least 270 electoral votes. Current projections say, barring unforeseen circumstances, Obama will win over 353 electoral votes, against McCain’s 185.

However, in 26 states of the federation, electors can, technically, vote against the express wishes of their electorate by not voting for the presidential candidate elected by voters in their state, although this rarely happens. In the remaining 24 states, there are strict penalties against “faithless electors,” that is, those who do not cast their votes for the candidate their electorate voted for.

Most state laws establish a "winner-take-all" system, wherein the ticket that wins a plurality of votes wins all of that state's allocated electoral votes, and thus has their slate of electors chosen to vote in the Electoral College. Two states—Maine and Nebraska— do not use this method, opting instead to give two electoral votes to the statewide winner and one electoral vote to the winner of each Congressional district.

Other possible outcomes of the election

In the event of a tie, there are other options apart from the House of Representatives voting for a president. Other possible scenarios, according to Robert Bennett, a professor of law at Northwestern University in Illinois, who spoke to the Associated Press, are:

Before the House meets, the Obama and McCain campaigns could try to convince the Electoral College voters who actually cast each state's electoral votes to switch their support. This has happened occasionally in past elections but has never affected the outcome of an election. Electors in roughly half of the states are bound by law to honor the popular vote.

While the House picks a president, the Senate picks the vice president in the event of a tie. The Democratic-controlled chamber could pick Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden even if McCain wins the House vote.

The newly minted vice president could become acting president if the House doesn't reach a resolution by the time President George W. Bush leaves the White House on January 20.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would become acting president if neither chamber could settle on a president or vice president but she would have to resign her post.

These wild speculations about what might happen after tomorrow’s vote underscore the unusualness and intensity of this year’s election.

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