The role of the electoral college in American politics is unique, indirectly electing the U.S. president every four years. The American constitution provides for each state of the union to have a list of electors chosen by the state legislators equal to the number of elected representatives sent from the states to the U.S. Congress.
The electoral college consists of 535 electors, in number equal to the Congressional representation of 435 House members and 100 Senators, plus three electors from the District of Columbia.
The uniqueness of the American republican form of government is the constitutional checks and balances among the three equal branches of government.
Only the executive as the president represents indirectly the entire nation on the basis of popular vote nationally conducted, but the election of the president rests with the electors representing the states.
The candidates for the American presidency engage in a contest that comprises of 50 individual elections, plus one in the District of Columbia, held on the same day. In other words, as James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, “The immediate election of the President is to be made by the States in their political characters.”
The reasoning behind such an arrangement was simple, to balance or safeguard the interests of minority (small states in terms of population) against majority (large populous states).
It was understood by the framers of the constitution that a majority vote in the electoral college meant the president-elect would be fairly representative of the union both in terms of total population and of states in the federation.
It has been rare — only on four occasions, the most recent in 2000 — when the majority vote in the electoral college went to a candidate losing the popular vote.
The reason for such a discrepancy to occur comes about when a candidate piles up the popular vote count by winning a few of the large and more populous states without winning enough of the smaller states to receive a majority of the electoral college vote.
The pattern of elections in recent years has shown that apart from a handful of so-called “battleground” states, most are locked in support of one of the two parties, Democrats or Republicans.
The coastal states — such as California (55 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (20), New York (29), New Jersey (14), — are locked in support of Democrats, while some of the southern states — such as Texas (38), Georgia (16), Arizona (11), Louisiana (8), Alabama (9) — support Republicans.
Hence, the battleground states — such as Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Iowa, where neither party has a lock on support of voters — become important in deciding the president-elect.
In the 2012 election cycle, since most observers view the race as tight, the decision will come down to a few key states putting either Obama or Romney over the top.
The 2012 election appears close based on assumptions drawn from the previous narrowly contested elections in 2000 and 2004
It is quite possible, however, this election might surprise most people, as the 1980 election did when Ronald Reagan won a landslide over the incumbent Jimmy Carter.
I will not be surprised with a similar result on election night.