Amid the recent chaos on Wall Street and the lack of any bipartisan remedy from Congress, few in the media have noted how extraordinarily close the United States is to making history.

In about one month, voters across this country will elect a sitting U.S. senator to become president, a feat unaccomplished since 1960. Americans will, for the first time, choose either an African American to become the nation’s chief executive or a woman to become its vice president, either of which will be a remarkable milestone for the country.

But despite all the polls and punditry, what our children and grandchildren will remember about Nov. 4, 2008, is not whether Honda-driving soccer moms ultimately broke for Barack Obama. It will be how the fate of the country was determined by a small handful of engaged citizens in an even smaller handful of states.

It is easy to be duped into thinking that Americans from the South to the Mountain West will have their voices heard next month. Maybe the countless debates – I lost track of the exact number somewhere between Manchester and Miami – or the eight days of convention coverage misled you. Hillary Clinton’s dynamic pants suits and Mitt Romney’s infallible hair may have earned them crucial primary votes in Indiana and Utah, but those same states can take the day off Nov. 4.

Rather, because of the peculiarities of the Electoral College, only voters in Ohio, Virginia and Colorado will elect the 44th president of the United States. There are other battleground states, of course. New Hampshire, Iowa, Missouri and a slew of other purple states are up for grabs. But they will not decide the election.

Here is the bottom line: McCain needs to win Ohio and either Virginia or Colorado to win the election. If he loses Ohio, or if he loses both Virginia and Colorado, then Obama wins. But what about Florida? Florida has trended rightward and, consequently, more predictably Republican. Popular Governor Charlie Crist single-handedly locked up the nomination for McCain with his endorsement just a few days ahead of the Sunshine State’s primary. Regardless, if McCain loses Florida, he inevitably loses Ohio (and the election). So, let us remove redundancy from the equation and revert back to the original formula.

Pennsylvania, a powerhouse in former presidential elections, lost its luster in similar fashion, with its increasingly leftward tilt and with Sen. Joe Biden, somehow considered a homestate figure, on the Democratic ticket. Pennsylvania will vote for Obama.

New Hampshire, New Mexico and Iowa voted for President Bush once in the past two elections, making them real toss-ups. Colorado is slightly more conservative than New Mexico in presidential elections, though, so Obama can assume he has New Mexico under his belt if he wins Colorado. Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s small electoral vote counts are not sizeable enough to determine the winner; McCain or Obama can take them and the aforementioned equation will remain true. That leaves all the chips in the hands of just three players.

Ohio is a nail-biter. Either Bush or John Kerry could have won there in 2004, and either McCain or Obama can win there this year. Ordinarily conservative voters may feel inclined to vote Democratic because of outsourcing, championed by McCain but reviled in a state hit hard by job losses.

Virginia has voted for the Republican presidential nominee in every election since 1964, but the growth of the state’s more liberal northern suburbs puts Obama within reach. As for Colorado, host to the 2008 Democratic National Convention, the state’s environmentally conscious voters are not particularly fond of McCain’s “Drill, baby, drill!” war chant. All three states voted for Bush in 2004 (securing him a second term) but can go either way this time around.

Plenty of “game-changing moments” can and will unfold between now and Election Day. Obama might discover his inner NASCAR fan and pick up a few unexpected Southern votes. McCain may win over some Michiganders by deploying Sarah Palin to woo hockey dads. At the end of the day, however, the GOP must confront a harsh reality. Democrats and like-minded independents are bitter at President Bush and the Republican Party and will unequivocally vote for the Democratic candidate this year. That puts once-palpable victories in Minnesota and Wisconsin, home to many Reagan Democrats, out of reach for McCain.

Thus, rather than 15, 10 or even five decisive states, McCain and Obama must focus on just three undecided electorates. Obama has locked up roughly 253 electoral votes, leaving him just 17 votes shy of the keys to the White House. McCain cannot afford to lose Ohio’s 20 votes, nor can he give away both Virginia’s 13 and Colorado’s nine votes. If he does, it’s game over.

Spencer Gottlieb is a junior in the McDonough School of Business.

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