President Obama made his barbecue debut as president in March at Texas Ribs and BBQ in Clinton. (Texas Ribs and BBQ)

The polls and prognosticators agree the 2012 presidential election will be extremely close. The obvious question is this: Will barbecue make the difference?

Conventional wisdom says no; states with deep barbecue roots are in the South, and the South is Republican. Right?

Um, sorta.

True, two of the four major barbecue capitals, Texas and Tennessee (see: Memphis), are solidly in the R column. Texas is as red as the beef it slow-smokes. Tennessee, for its part, is so Republican that one of its native sons, Al Gore, couldn’t carry the state in his 2000 presidential contest against George W. Bush.

That leaves two states. One is Missouri, where Kansas City has long been considered a top barbecue destination. In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain squeaked out a victory in Missouri by 0.1 percent. Considered more pink than red, the Show-Me State remains a battleground, with one recent poll essentially calling it a toss-up between Mitt Romney and President Obama.

The other state is North Carolina. In 2008, Obama won the Tar Heel State by less than half a percentage point. It, too, is regarded as leaning Republican this year. But the recent bipartisan Purple Poll and High Point University poll both show Obama with leads of two and three percent, respectively (both within the margin for error).

Meanwhile, another swing state, Virginia, retains a barbecue pedigree of sorts even though it’s more known for its hams (and I’m not talking politicians here). With George Washington having written about going to, and hosting, barbecues in the commonwealth, the Old Dominion is cited as a cradle of Southern barbecue. Virginia went for Obama in 2008, but The Washington Post electoral map calls Virginia “the single swingiest state in the country” and declares it a “major battleground.”

One other important swing state, Florida, while not generally considered a place with deep barbecue roots, nonetheless enjoys just enough of the smoked-meat culture to put the cuisine in play.

What does all this mean? The election may hinge on the great unrecognized voting bloc that I call the BBQ Vote.

As Orator-in-Chief Bill Clinton would say, “Listen to me now. . .I’m fixin’ to tell you why.”

It takes 270 electoral college votes to win the presidency.

In its latest assessment, The Washington Post’s electoral map shows Obama with 196 of them locked up (the West Coast and Northeast, basically) and Romney with 170 (the South, Texas and the mountain states).

The projections say 59 votes are leaning Obama’s way (Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Mexico), and 36 are leaning Romney’s (North Carolina, Arizona, Missouri).

If everything falls into place, 77 electoral votes are up for grabs in seven states: Florida, Wisconsin, Iowa, Virginia, New Hampshire, Nevada and Colorado.

Clinton again: It’s arithmetic. Obama, according to The Post’s map, needs 15 electoral votes. Romney, 64.

If Obama confounds The Post’s pundits by, again, taking North Carolina and this time wins Missouri, he’d garner 23 electoral votes and be re-elected.

Romney, on the other hand, has a considerably tougher barbecue road to hoe. He’s already expected to take North Carolina and Missouri, thus locking down the BBQ Vote. But if he wins Florida (29) and Virginia (13), and takes a state with a surprising Bubba-esque constituency such as Ohio (18), he’d have 60 of his needed 64. How he gets those other four, vis-a-vis the Barbecue Electoral Map is doable.

I’d say he make a run at turning the Obama-leaning Pennsylvania (20 votes), which, in recent years, has become something of a barbecue sleeper state. A competition team, PA Midnite Smokers, won the Mid Atlantic Barbecue Association’s 2011 Team of the Year Award; Fred’s Music and Tasty Licks BBQ Supply in Shillington is one of the best around; and Meadow Creek grill manufacturer from New Holland does a thriving business turning out top-notch rigs.

So, here is how Romney can win: Eat ribs in Florida and Ohio, country ham in Virginia (I know, I know, but the commonwealth has changed since Washington’s day) and every kind of barbecue he can in Pennsylvania.

As for Obama, he should eat sauced ribs and burnt ends in Kansas City, pulled pork sandwiches in North Carolina and, yes, country ham in Virginia.

Oh, sure, political strategists can target the suburban vote and the single-mom vote and the rural middle-aged male vote. But I’m tellin’ ya, the road to the White House is paved with barbecue joints.

Send your tips, advice and news to me at Follow me on Twitter @jimshahin .

Further reading:

* Smoke Signals: Obama’s BBQ debut

* Tampa takes a democratic approach to BBQ

* Tips on how not to be a BBQ Rufus in North Carolina

* Obama’s visit to Kenny’s BBQ: What does it mean?

* Where to go ‘whole hog’ (or not) in North Carolina