Polls show a close race between President George Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry. But the national polls don't reflect the true nature of the race because the president is not elected directly by the people, but by a state-based Electoral College. A handful of states, the so-called swing states, are still in play and will decide the election.
Voting has already begun in a number of states
What is a swing state?
There are only a handful of states where the presidential race is still competitive. In states like New York, Illinois and California, John Kerry enjoys a double digit lead, and in states like Georgia, Texas and Wyoming, George Bush is as much as 20 points ahead.
But in the swing states, the race is tied or one candidate has only a slim lead. Either candidate could win in these states.
Why will the election hinge on these few states?
The president of the United States is not elected directly but rather through the Electoral College. There are 538 electors distributed amongst the states and the District of Columbia (Washington).
KEY SWING STATES
1. Florida - 27 electoral votes
2. Pennsylvania - 21
3. Ohio - 20
4. Minnesota - 10
5. Wisconsin - 10
6. Iowa - 7
7. Nevada - 5
8. New Mexico - 5
9. New Hampshire - 4
In every state apart from Maine, Nebraska and possibly after this election Colorado, the Electoral College votes are awarded on a "winner-take-all" basis. The candidate who wins the popular vote in a state wins all of that state's electoral votes. A candidate needs 270 votes to win.
Neither candidate clearly has the 270 votes needed to win. Hence, the race comes down to this handful of swing states where the race is still competitive.
Does this mean national opinion polls don't reflect the reality of the race?
Yes. State polls and their impact on the Electoral College projections show the true state of the race. National polls accurately reflect that the race is very tight, but they do not necessarily reflect who will win based on the Electoral College.
What states are still competitive?
The race has now effectively narrowed to nine states: New Mexico, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada and New Hampshire.
The candidates are pouring their resources into these remaining states. They are focusing their television advertising in those states and making both the candidates and their running mates are criss-crossing the states in a last minute campaign press.
Some commentators joke that President Bush could run for governor of Pennsylvania. He's made at least 43 campaign appearances there.
Based on the state polls, who is winning?
The results change almost day by day. Both Mr Bush and Mr Kerry have had winning combinations in the last month of the election campaign, but neither has been able to hold on to a consistent lead.
Are problems expected similar to the ones in Florida due to the closeness of the race?
Yes, and the problems have already begun. All voting systems have a certain amount of spoiled ballots and fraud. But the shortcomings of the US election system take on greater importance when the margin of victory is only a few hundred votes as it could be in some of the swing states.
The US tried to correct some of these problems of the 2000 election. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 provided funds to replace punch card voting systems that posed such problems in Florida, but many states still use the systems including the key swing state of Ohio.
The act also directed states to allow voters whose registration is not confirmed to be allowed to vote by provisional ballot. If the race is close, many fear that the provisional ballots will be a point for legal challenges.
Early voting has already begun in Florida, and there have been so many complaints that the state has set up a task force to investigate claims of fraud and problems with absentee ballots.