A specter from of old is casting its morbid shadow over the realm of polls. I am speaking, of course, of the possibility that one candidate (Barack Obama) will lose the popular vote but win in the Electoral College. Just right now this specter seems to be taking visible form.
Mitt Romney is very slightly ahead in national polls of likely voters. Of the eight polls listed at the Real Clear Politics page, only one shows Obama with a lead (1%). That is also the oldest poll. The remaining seven give Romney a lead between 4% and a tie. Romney's lead is of course within the margin of error in all these polls, but taken together they certainly suggest that he would win the popular vote by at least a hair. Or at least he would if the election were held next Tuesday.
The Electoral College, however, actually determines the winner. Here Obama still enjoys an advantage even if it has been steadily shrinking. Romney is surging in Florida. He is showing slight leads in Virginia, New Hampshire, and Colorado. Obama still enjoys a slight lead in Ohio, which everyone seems to think is the key state in the electoral vote game.
The Real Clear Politics electoral map gives Obama/Biden (solid + likely + leaning) 201 electoral votes. It gives Romney/Ryan 181. That leaves 156 votes in the "toss up" category. RCP is being rather generous in their toss up criteria. If Obama wins Missouri or Romney wins Michigan, that will probably mean a landslide in one direction or the other. The encouraging news for the Romney camp is that more toss up states are shifting red than blue. The discouraging news for Mitt is that the RCP map with no toss ups gives Obama/Biden 294 electoral votes, 24 more than the magic 270.
I am not persuaded by the argument that the electorate has already made up its mind. I think that significant shifts in undecided/independent voters are possible and even likely. If one of the two tickets is four or five points ahead nationally as election day approaches, that ticket will win Ohio and enough of the remaining swing states to add up to an Electoral College victory.
Only if the election is very, very close, indicated by a tie in the national polls, do the state by state numbers become decisive. If the national polls on November2nd are where they are now, we would be in that situation. It is entirely possible that Barack Obama will be reelected while losing the popular vote. There is no reason to expect the opposite scenario.
I am not saying that this is likely, only that it is possible. If it should happen, allow me to pronounce judgment in advance. The rules are the rules. I like the Electoral College and I accept its outcome even if denies victory to the ticket that most voters preferred. I won't grumble about an "unelected President" as many on the opposite side of the aisle did after the 2000 election. I expect that almost all conservatives and most Republicans will do the same. We won't be babies about it.