Reëlection Watch: May 3, 2012
We’ve been running these for several months now. Now that the election is shifting gears and focusing on the two candidates, it’s time to shake things up a bit.
First, Reëlection Watch is shifting to a twice-monthly schedule. Second, some of the sections we had in previous versions are being eliminated or consolidated. And third, I’m zooming in more on the battleground states, since that’s where the action will be.
So, how are things going for the President lately?
Last month, Obama’s approval/disapproval rating in the Real Clear Politics average had a +1.8 point spread. It has since dropped to +0.6 points, though the difference appears mostly attributable to the differences among polls of “Americans”, “registered voters”, and “likely voters”. That is, if the aggregate is heavier with “Americans”, the average is more positive than it is with the other two. This means that we need to look closely to determine the actual signal. Compare apples to apples, and you’ll see what I mean:
- Rasmussen gained four points to –1
- Gallup lost three points to +1
- Fox News gained three points to –6
- CBS gained 12 points to +6
In short, we have noise that’s bigger than any shifts in the overall score. The bottom line is that Obama is roughly equal between the approvals and disapprovals. Given where we are in the cycle, this is the mean to which we can expect localized bumps to revert. That said, we should be looking for long-term trend signals in the noise, but those need at least two months of data to be clearly signal.The Right Track/Wrong Track polls seem to be converging on their own mean. This month the spread grew by 2.5 points to −28.8, but this growth looks more like mean reversion than anything else. We should watch for changes if another budget battle crops up this summer.
Congress’s spread improved again, this time by 4.4 points to −64.0. It’s hardly a number worthy of celebration, but people are less angry at Congress than they were in February, when it was the worst spread on record.The generic Congressional ballot got redder for a while, then lost some of its red tint this month, ending up exactly where it started at R+1.4. It’s too early to tell if this is a harbinger of a trend back to the left, or merely reversion to the mean.
As of yesterday, Intrade had Obama at a 59.9 percent chance of reëlection, down 0.8 points from last month. This is looking like a roughly 60 percent mean as the starting point for the “real” race, as the 60 percent zone has been constant since early February, when trading started becoming appreciably more active.
Things have essentially stabilized in a somewhat pro-Obama state, though not necessarily pro-Democrat in the House.
In many respects, this is a repeat of last time.
Nationally, employment growth has continued to slow down, though it remains in positive territory. ADP, the New Jersey-based payroll processing company, projects a seasonally-adjusted month-over-month rise in private-sector employment of 119,000, down from last month’s revised 201,000 (down a hair from their original 209,000 number). It’s roughly enough to keep up with population growth, which is a reflected in the expected lack of change in the U3 unemployment rate at 8.2 percent. Some have suggested that the lower rate of rise in employment has come from the mild winter, which started the spring surge a couple of months ahead of schedule. This would account for the higher numbers earlier in the year.
Unemployment in some battleground states differ significantly from the national average, though. Look at these:
|State||U3 Rate||Difference from
Compared to the national average, then, Nevada has it worst, followed by North Carolina and Florida; Iowa and New Hampshire are doing best, followed by Virginia, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
But the trend can have a bigger impact than the raw number. Nationally, the U3 rate dropped by 0.7 points. How did the key states do?
|State||Year over Year
U3 Rate Change
Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia had rate changes low enough to be statistically insignificant. For those states, then, unemployment isn’t improving.
We can conclude from this that Iowa, New Hampshire, and Virginia are doing well overall, and Wisconsin isn’t far behind, while Florida and Nevada are moving in the right direction. On unemployment, North Carolina appears to be the most vulnerable, and Pennsylvania is more neutral (better-than-average unemployment rate, but not close to full employment and not improving).
In terms of oil, West Texas Intermediate crude is trading at about $105, up almost two percent from last month, while Brent crude (representing the European market) has fallen a little over three percent to about $119. The rise in Texas is most likely the seasonal price hike that occurs in the spring of every year, as transportation use rises sharply in the US. The fall in Europe is perhaps a combination of a more stable Iran and a clearer second dip into recession in Europe. Last month, I predicted that gasoline prices would fall in response to the falling oil prices. Sure enough, it fell about 12 cents per gallon, roughly three percent. The rise in oil prices this month will probably increase gasoline prices next month, though this increase should be significantly weaker than the last one.
Meanwhile, natural gas prices continue their slide. Over the past year, the spot price has fallen from five dollars per million British Thermal Units to about two dollars, a drop of 60 percent. There are many reasons behind this, but that’s a topic for a future article. In the meantime, it’s worth keeping in mind that the lower natural gas prices translate to lower electricity prices in many parts of the country.
All in all, it’s a mixed bag on the national scene, though good in some key states.
The Electoral College
This month, I’m adding a new wrinkle here. There are two separate trends involved, and it’s worthwhile to tease them apart.
First is the national trend, where all states move in the same direction. Big news, such as last year’s killing of Osama bin Laden, or a widespread economic shift, causes this effect.
Second is the state trend, where a state moves relative to the nation as a whole. This can be caused by local news stories, or media buys, or political rallies…something that isn’t of much interest outside the state’s boundaries.
We could track the state trends for all 51 contributors to the Electoral College, but that’s hardly worth the effort. After all, with Texas being over 20 points in Romney’s direction, and the District of Columbia over 60 points in Obama’s direction, flipping either of them would take a shift in the national landscape of such epic proportions that nobody would have much interest in the Presidential election.
So, instead, I’m going to track only those in play. For now, I’ll have to ignore those without recent polls.
The Real Clear Politics national average gives Obama a 3.7 point lead over Romney. Let’s see how the states RCP considers “in play” compare to that average (some of these are adjusted to correct for house effects):
|State||Current||2008 Election|| Shift
I left South Carolina off the list, even though RCP considers it in play, because of the lack of recent polling there.
If the difference from the national average is appreciably far from the 2008 results, and there isn’t a clear explanation to account for that difference, then I’d be particularly suspicious of the current state polling. As it is, though, I can see credible reasons for most of the shifts. I’m unsure of Minnesota, Missouri, and Ohio, though.
In any case, for the next few months I’ll be tracking both the national average movement and the relative movement of each state compared to the national average. This should give us a chance to evaluate the credibility of the state polls, and see what impact the campaigns are having on the individual states, relative to the nation as a whole.
Now let’s see what the current Electoral College looks like:
There has been some shuffling, but the net result is a shift from the “Leans Obama” column to the “Tossup” column. Here’s what’s changed since last month’s battleground, from most likely to go Romney’s way to most likely to go Obama’s way:
- Arizona is being called a tossup by RCP. I do believe that it’s going to be less red this time than in 2008, simply because Senator John McCain was the hometown candidate. That makes Arizona more of a “Leans Romney” than a “Likely Romney”, but I’m not ready to call it a tossup.
- Missouri got a new Rasmussen poll, taking six points away from Romney. That moves the Show Me State to tossup.
- North Carolina remains solidly in tossup territory. The Survey USA and Rasmussen polls each show Obama and Romney, respectively, as the leader. In both cases, it’s by small single digits.
- Pennsylvania had no Romney vs. Obama polls in April. With no new data, there’s no reason to move this one.
- Florida, had polls from left-leaning Public Policy Polling, and right-leaning Rasmussen and Fox News. All three sit inside the margin of error, making Florida a pure tossup.
- Nevada turned into a clearer Obama Lean, based on an April Rasmussen poll. I’m still leaving Nevada purple…but if the trend continues in the current direction, my next update will put Nevada into the Leans Obama column.
- Ohio is less certain this month, now that Fox and Rasmussen give Obama smaller margins than last time. But it’s still far enough away from zero to be Leans Obama.
- Virginia also looks less certain for Obama than it was last month. Rasmussen came away with Obama having lost a full ten points, giving Romney the edge by one. Coupled with Public Policy Polling’s eight-point Obama lead, this looks like it’s barely better than Ohio for Obama’s prospects.
Based on this month’s polling, Obama needs only 34 electoral votes (up from 12 last month) out of the 121 in the tossup group. This means that, worst case, Obama would need five of the nine states in the category. If he gets the three easiest from the above list, it would be enough. Or he could get two of the three, plus any one of pure tossups Florida, Pennsylvania, or North Carolina.
One thing is clear from all of this: now that the distractions of the primary race are falling away, Obama has little margin for error in keeping his job.
With the Electoral College getting a little more competitive, and another weaker-than-expected jobs report, things aren’t necessarily rosy for Obama. Long-term indicators remain mixed, leaving too many opportunities for things to shift in the next six months. We need to start looking at the trends to see where things are headed.
Something to keep in mind: four years ago, the polls tightened up in March and April. By this day four years ago, Obama’s five-point lead over McCain narrowed to 1.1 points in the national RCP average. He held that lead, which grew to as large as seven points, until the Republican convention bump. Once that bump faded, and McCain and running mate Sarah Palin made misstep after misstep, Obama’s poll lead widened to 7.6 points. He won the election by 7.2 points.
- Reëlection Watch: April 2012 (logarchism.com)
- GOP lawmaker mocks new Obama reëlection slogan (thehill.com)
- As the economy slows, so slow his reëlection chances (steveprestegard.com)
- Milbank: Obama embraces the permanent campaign (politico.com)
- S.E. Cupp: Obama ‘Miscalculated’ With Osama Ad, Provoking Criticism From The Left (mediaite.com)