On Tuesday, Gallup's seven-day tracking poll had Barack Obama and Mitt Romney tied at 46%. With the incumbent stuck below 50% on the ballot and Mr. Romney's favorability rising, the Republican challenger has a good shot at winning.
To take the White House, Mr. Romney needs 270 votes in the Electoral College. A "3-2-1" strategy will get him there.
If Mr. Romney carries the states John McCain won in 2008 and regains Nebraska's second district (the state awards three of its five electoral votes by congressional district, the other two to the statewide winner), the Electoral College will be 14 votes closer than the 365-to-173 total in 2008. That's because the 2010 Census cost blue states such as Massachusetts, New York and Illinois congressional seats—and electoral votes—while red states such as South Carolina, Georgia and Texas gained seats.
None of Mr. McCain's states appear in real jeopardy for the GOP this year.
After this initial hurdle, Mr. Romney's victory road starts with "3"—as in Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia, a trio of historically Republican states. In 2008, Mr. Obama won by narrow margins in Indiana (barely 1%) and North Carolina (0.32%).
Today, even Team Obama doesn't pretend Indiana is in play. North Carolina also appears to be sliding away from the president: A May 14 Rasmussen poll of likely voters showed 51% for Romney, 43% for Obama. Virginia, on the other hand, will likely remain a battleground through Election Day. Mr. Obama carried it by more than six points and remains ahead by a little more than three points, according to the RealClearPolitics average of state polls.
Nevertheless, if Mr. Romney can put these states' combined 39 electoral votes back into the GOP column, the Electoral College vote would be 319 for Mr. Obama, 219 for Mr. Romney.
Next up is "2"—as in Florida and Ohio. They flipped from Republican in 2004 to Democratic in 2008. Both were close—a 2.8% margin for Mr. Obama in the former and 4.6% in the latter.
The president's commanding lead in Florida among Jews has been sagging, his lead among Latinos has sharply narrowed, and seniors are restless. In Ohio he has definite problems with white working-class voters and affluent suburban independents. The race is extremely close in the Buckeye State—a May 7 Quinnipiac poll of registered voters has Mr. Romney at 44%, Mr. Obama at 45%—while a May 21 Quinnipiac poll of registered voters in the Sunshine State has Mr. Romney up 47% to 41%.
These two states have a combined 47 electoral votes. If Mr. Romney wins them, the Electoral College would stand at 272 for Mr. Obama, 266 for Mr. Romney.
Which brings us to "1." Mr. Romney then needs one more state—any state—and the White House is his.
There are many paths open to him. One is the Neighborhood route. If the Boston resident and former Massachusetts governor captures next-door New Hampshire, its four electoral votes would take him to the magical 270 and the Oval Office.
There's also the Great Lakes route through Michigan (16 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (20) and Wisconsin (10). Of these, Michigan may be the toughest. But Mr. Obama's antipathy toward coal, added to problems with working-class whites and suburban independents, puts Pennsylvania in play. A May 21 Rasmussen poll of likely voters had the president ahead by six percentage points.
And if Gov. Scott Walker survives his June 5 recall by a healthy margin, Wisconsin could also be up for grabs—as it was in 2000 and 2004, when Democrats carried it by extremely narrow margins. A May 12 Marquette University Law School poll of likely voters shows the presidential race in Wisconsin tied at 46%.
The Western route is Colorado (nine electoral votes), Nevada (six) or New Mexico (five). An April 23 Purple Strategies Poll of likely voters has the race tied in Colorado at 47%.
With the nation's highest unemployment rate (11.7%), Nevadans remember Mr. Obama's notorious bashing of Las Vegas in 2010: "When times are tough, you tighten your belts. . . . You don't blow a bunch of cash in Vegas . . ." Meanwhile, New Mexico has a popular Republican Latina governor, Susana Martinez.
Then there's the Plains route. Iowa (six electoral votes) launched Mr. Obama in 2008 but National Journal's Hotline reports Team Obama is targeting it for special attention with TV ads, evidence of its worry.
Mr. Obama long ago lost his chance to duplicate his 2008 performance. A record of failure will do that. He's now forced to fight for states he easily won in 2008. The odds now narrowly favor a Romney win.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, May 23, 2012.