This is the first in a series of arti­cles we will pub­lish every month between now and the gen­eral elec­tion. As we get closer to Novem­ber, 2012, the fre­quency will almost cer­tainly increase.

Each time, we’ll take a look at the var­i­ous fac­tors that typ­i­cally influ­ence elec­tion out­comes, and com­pare them to the pre­vi­ous month. Since this is the first in the series, I’m tak­ing a bit of a finger-​​in-​​the-​​air approach.

Let’s look at each fac­tor individually.

Polls

The Wash­ing­ton Post/​Pew Research polls are look­ing very good for Obama. His over­all approve/​disapprove num­bers improved by five points among Democ­rats, and ten points among the critical-​​for-​​reëlection inde­pen­dents. Unsur­pris­ingly, his Repub­li­can num­bers are unchanged, but that’s not likely to impact his reëlec­tion prospects. On ter­ror­ism, Obama’s num­bers improved even among Repub­li­cans. On the econ­omy, how­ever, he has dropped six points among independents.

The lat­est Right Track/​Wrong Track polls (taken in April), show a 41-​​point neg­a­tive spread, which is strongly indica­tive of a “throw the bums out” sen­ti­ment. The num­bers are far worse than they were in the run-​​up to the 2010 elec­tions, or those shortly after the new Con­gress was sworn in. This makes it hard to tell, by itself, the degree to which these num­bers apply to the Pres­i­dent ver­sus Con­gress. Con­sid­er­ing the over­all approval/​disapproval num­bers, how­ever (even assum­ing that the “bin Laden bump” isn’t per­sis­tent), one can cred­i­bly con­clude that it’s more a reflec­tion of Con­gress than of the President.

The lat­est CNN/​Opinion Research polls are inter­est­ing. Com­pared to Bill Clin­ton at the same point in his first term, Obama is polling five points bet­ter (+5 in “def­i­nitely vote for,” –5 in “prob­a­bly not vote for,” and about the same in “prob­a­bly vote for” and “def­i­nitely not vote for”). This isn’t a “bin Laden bump,” either; the num­bers are essen­tially unchanged from Jan­u­ary. On the other hand, Inde­pen­dents have a nine-​​point spread against Obama, and Mod­er­ates are evenly split. In the cross-​​tabs, a bare major­ity of Inde­pen­dents (50%) and a solid super­ma­jor­ity of Mod­er­ates (61%) approve of Obama’s per­for­mance. But the num­bers reverse when look­ing at how they feel about Obama’s han­dling of the economy—61% of Inde­pen­dents and 50% of Mod­er­ates disapprove.

The over­all pic­ture is very mixed. It’s bet­ter than Clin­ton was at this stage in his first term, and other com­par­isons to Reagan’s first term show Obama track­ing remark­ably closely to Reagan.

The Com­pe­ti­tion

Mike Huck­abee did some dam­age to his rep­u­ta­tion by com­par­ing the national debt to the Holo­caust. The dam­age isn’t huge in the short term, but his refusal to apol­o­gize or retract the state­ment increases the like­li­hood that this move will bite him in the future.

Michele Bach­mann made a sim­i­lar state­ment before Huck­abee did, but it’s so much in line with her exist­ing pub­lic image that it’s not likely to change her prospects; it merely rein­forces the image she already has…at least with those who are aware of her existence.

Don­ald Trump con­tin­ues to act more like a real­ity show star than a can­di­date for Pres­i­dent. The longer he does this, the less likely he will appear at the top of the ticket for the Repub­li­can Party in 2012.

With Trump’s prospects fad­ing fast, the most cred­i­ble can­di­date today remains Mitt Romney.

From the stand­point of the com­pe­ti­tion, polls sug­gest that the elec­tion is Obama’s to lose, a sit­u­a­tion that hasn’t really changed in months.

The Econ­omy

The econ­omy is a mixed bag right now.

On the pos­i­tive side, unem­ploy­ment recently shrunk to its low­est level since July, 2009. The Dow Jones Indus­trial Aver­age is at its high­est level since the sum­mer of 2008, and has been ris­ing at a rapid clip pretty con­sis­tently for the past two years.

On the other hand, the real estate mar­ket remains soft. Ana­lysts have sug­gested that there is a four-​​year inven­tory back­log, which indi­cates a long wait for improve­ment in the hous­ing market.

Fur­ther­more, oil prices have risen sig­nif­i­cantly of late. West Texas Inter­me­di­ate crude is trad­ing above $110 per bar­rel, a 30% rise since Feb­ru­ary, and more than 2½ times the price of the trough dur­ing the 2008 reces­sion. Gas prices at the pump are nearly four dol­lars nation­wide, within a hairs-​​breadth of the 2008 peak just prior to the reces­sion. Those prices, par­tic­u­larly accom­pa­nied by a rise as rapid as this one, sig­nif­i­cantly increase the chances of another reces­sion. Unem­ploy­ment has most recently been on the rise again, sug­gest­ing that we may be see­ing the early signs of exactly such a sce­nario. If we have another reces­sion now, the effects are likely to linger into next year’s elec­tion sea­son. Vot­ers are not kind to sit­ting Pres­i­dents dur­ing reces­sions, or shortly after they end.

This one is hard to peg, with such con­flict­ing data. I’m going to call the eco­nomic impact as mixed for now.

Other Fac­tors

The release of Obama’s “long form” birth cer­tifi­cate elim­i­nated the last barely-​​credible ves­tige of birtherism. Whether inten­tional or not, the deci­sion to release it at the same time as autho­riz­ing a mil­i­tary oper­a­tion to kill Osama bin Laden does a fine job of high­light­ing the triv­i­al­ity of the birther claims.

And, of course, being the man in the White House at the time that bin Laden was found and killed gives a short-​​term boost regard­less of other fac­tors. It also puts to rest many of the memes that Obama is soft on ter­ror­ism, which should have more last­ing effects. In essence, it all but elim­i­nates one poten­tial talk­ing point for the Repub­li­can can­di­date on next year’s ballot.

The Trends

Here’s how things look overall.

Area Effect
Polls Slightly pos­i­tive
The Com­pe­ti­tion Neu­tral
The Econ­omy Mixed
Other Fac­tors Pos­i­tive

Con­clu­sion

Things are look­ing pretty good for Obama’s reëlec­tion prospects right now. The biggest dan­ger cur­rently within view is another reces­sion. If that hap­pens, he could lose even to Sarah Palin. But, bar­ring another reces­sion, his reëlec­tion looks today to be assured.

We’ll be back next month to see how well this sit­u­a­tion has held out.