Take your pick, folks: A recent New York Times/CBS News poll put President Obama's approval rating at 41 percent, the lowest of his presidency. The same day, a Gallup survey said Obama's approval was 49 percent, a nine-month high. Which is right? If you support the president, you'll say Gallup's 49 percent; if you don't, the 41 percent number sounds good. (And aren't the Times and CBS part of the "liberal media elite" that loves Obama? Not much love in 41 percent.)

Let's face it: Poll numbers don't mean all that much. But here's a pair of numbers that mean everything: 247 to 206. That's the number of electoral votes that Democrats and Republicans, respectively, appear to have either a lock or a lead on with less than eight months months until election day. The magic number needed to win the White House, of course, is 270 — meaning Obama needs just 23 more, and Mitt Romney 64. For both men, that's easier said than done. 

How does it break down? My friend Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, has four decades of peering into his crystal ball. He says President Obama is guaranteed 175 rock-solid electoral votes, and Mitt Romney 105.  What are they?

Obama's solid electoral votes: 175 Romney's solid electoral votes: 105
California (55) Alabama (9)
Connecticut (7) Alaska (3)
Delaware (3) Arkansas (6)
District of Columbia (3) Idaho (4)
Hawaii (4) Kansas (6)
Illinois (20) Kentucky (8)
Maryland (10) Louisiana (8)
Massachusetts (11) Mississippi (6)
New Jersey (14) Montana (3)
New York (29) Nebraska (5)
Rhode Island (4) North Dakota (3)
Vermont (3) Oklahoma (7)
Washington (12) South Carolina (9)
  South Dakota (3)
  Tennessee (11)
  Utah (6)
  West Virginia (5)
  Wyoming (3)


Then there are states that aren't nearly as solid but, based on historical patterns, somewhat easy to predict. Thus, 72 more for Obama and 101 for Romney.  

  Obama's leaning electoral votes: 72   Romney's leaning electoral votes: 101
Maine (4) Arizona (11)
Michigan (16) Georgia (16)
Minnesota (10) Indiana (11)
New Mexico (5) Missouri (10)
Oregon (7) North Carolina (15)
Pennsylvania (20) Texas (38)
Wisconsin (10)  


As you can see, we can predict the likely result of almost every state in the nation. That's the reality of presidential elections: Candidates don't run national races. They focus the bulk of their resources — time, money, personnel — on the key swing states that will get them over the top. This year, it comes down to the "super seven" swing states:  

  Swing state   Electoral votes   2008 Result
Colorado 9 Obama won 54-45
Florida 29 (27 in 2008) Obama won 51-48
Iowa 6 Obama won 54-45
Nevada 6 (5 in 2008) Obama won 55-43
New Hampshire 4 Obama won 54-45
Ohio 18 (20 in 2008) Obama won 51-47
Virginia 13 Obama won 53-46


Pay no attention to the fact that Obama won all of these swing states (and their 84 electoral votes) four years ago. It's a whole new ballgame in 2012. For starters, there is unemployment and the economy, which the business-savvy Romney will make his signature issue. Consider these jobless numbers in the "super seven": 

  State January 2009 unemployment January 2012 unemployment Peak unemployment
Colorado 6.6 percent 7.8 percent 9.0 percent
Florida 8.7 percent 9.6 percent 11.4 percent
Iowa 6.1 percent 5.4 percent 6.3 percent
Nevada 9.6 percent 12.7 percent 14.0 percent
New Hampshire

5.2 percent

5.2 percent 6.7 percent
Ohio 8.6 percent 7.7 percent 10.6 percent
Virginia 5.8 percent 5.8 percent 7.3 percent


When Mitt Romney asks the standard presidential campaign question — "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" — the table above suggests the answer is mixed. Unemployment is higher in Colorado, Florida, and Nevada, but lower in Iowa and Ohio. If electoral votes were assigned on this basis alone, Romney would gain 44 more, bringing him to 250. But Obama would bag 24, giving him 271 — one more than he needs to win re-election. And the jobless rate is the same today in two of the super seven — New Hampshire and Virginia — as it was on inauguration day in 2009. 

But things are never this simple. Romney will also also argue, correctly, that Obama's ill-fated prediction that the stimulus would keep unemployment below 8.0 percent didn't pan out. (Indeed, unemployment has been above that threshold for Obama's entire presidency.) Romney now acknowledges that things are getting better, but argues that Obama's policies have slowed the recovery and made it weaker than it should have been.

For his part, the president will argue that unemployment rates have come down sharply from their recession peak in all of these states — proof, he'll claim, that his policies are turning things around. It's also fair to point out, as the president has done repeatedly, that unemployment had been soaring and the economy tanking before he took office (also true), and that one simply can't throw a switch and turn it all around

Let's also remember that unemployment isn't the end-all-be-all data point in an election. If it were, California — and its 10.9 percent jobless rate — wouldn't be a lock for Obama. But the president will certainly win the Golden State's 55 electoral votes — a fifth of what he needs for re-election. There are other factors, too.

The Latino vote
The fastest-growing voter bloc in the nation, Latinos went 2-to-1 for Obama in 2008. This was a big help in three of the super seven states: Colorado, Nevada, and Florida. Latinos have issues with the president — he hasn't exactly delivered on his promised immigration reform — but given Romney's opposition to the DREAM Act and amnesty for undocumented immigrants, it's hard to see the Republican peeling away many Latino votes. Indeed, there are signs that Romney has already written off Latinos.  

The African-American vote
Blacks turned out in droves for Obama in 2008, supporting him with 95 percent of the vote. Turnout reached 65.3 percent, way up from 2004's 60.3 percent. The turnout rate was especially large among black women and younger blacks.  This made a big difference for Obama in Virginia, where blacks were more than 20 percent of the electorate — and Obama won with 53 percent of the vote. Like Latinos, many black voters have their disappointments with the president (the African-American unemployment rate is 14.1 percent), but no one in the Romney camp seriously expects to make a dent in African-American support of America's first black president. The key is turnout: If blacks don't show up in force on election day like they did four years ago, it will be a problem for Obama, not just in Virginia, but in Florida, where one in six citizens are black.

The white vote
In 2008, 74 percent of the electorate was white, but this percentage has been shrinking for years, a long-term problem for Republicans — and for Romney this year. As for turnout, the percentage of eligible white voters who cast a ballot in 2008 declined to 66.1 percent from 67.2 percent in 2004. What about 2012? A National Journal study argues Romney will need more white votes — even as the percentage of the white electorate shrinks — than McCain got in 2008. Conversely, the study argues, Obama will need less. Here's what the study says about the "super seven" states and the white vote:   

  State   Percentage of white vote Obama won in 2008   Percentage of white vote Obama needs in 2012
Colorado 50 percent 47.1 percent
Florida 42 percent 43.0 percent
Iowa 51 percent 47.0 percent
Nevada  45 percent 39.5 percent
New Hampshire  54 percent 50.1 percent
Ohio 46 percent 45.6 percent
Virginia 39 percent 37.6 percent


Source: National Journal

The burden is on Romney to attract a greater percentage of the shrinking white electorate than McCain got in 2008, while the burden for Obama is to maintain his share among blacks and Hispanics. It is here, in these "super seven" swing states, that each side's desperate effort to get out the vote will determine who will place his hand on the Bible on January 20, 2013.