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?

National Polls

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.

The Econ­omy

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
National Average 
Florida 9.0 +0.8
Iowa 5.2 –3.0
Nevada 12.0 +3.8
New Hamp­shire 5.2 –3.0
North Car­olina 9.7 +1.5
Penn­syl­va­nia 7.5 –0.7
Vir­ginia 5.6 –2.6
Wis­con­sin 6.8 –1.4

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
Dif­fer­ence from
National Average
Florida –1.7 –1.0
Nevada –1.6 –0.9
Wis­con­sin –0.8 –0.1

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
Since
2008
Obama
Margin
Dif­fer­ence from
National Average
Obama
Margin
Dif­fer­ence from
National Average
Ari­zona –3.2 –6.9 –8.6 –15.8 +8.9
Col­orado +7.0 +3.3 +9.0 +1.7 +1.6
Florida +3.3 –0.4 +2.8 –4.4 +4.0
Geor­gia –12.0 –15.7 –5.2 –12.5 –3.2
Indi­ana –9.0 –12.7 +1.0 –6.2 –6.5
Iowa +3.0 –0.7 +9.5 +2.3 –3.0
Maine +12.0 +8.3 +17.3 +10.1 –1.8
Michi­gan +11.3 +7.6 +16.5 +9.2 –1.6
Min­nesota +9.6 +6.1 +10.2 +3.0 +3.1
Mis­souri +3.0 –0.7 –0.1 –7.4 +6.7
Mon­tana –3.0 –6.7 –2.3 –9.5 +2.8
New Hamp­shire +3.5 –0.2 +9.6 +2.4 –2.6
New Mex­ico +15.0 +11.3 +15.1 +7.9 +3.4
Nevada +8.0 +4.3 +12.5 +5.2 –0.9
North Car­olina +2.4 –1.3 +0.3 –6.9 +5.6
Ohio +5.3 +1.8 +4.6 –2.7 +4.5
Ore­gon +11.0 +7.3 +16.4 +9.1 –1.8
Penn­syl­va­nia +3.0 –0.7 +10.4 +3.1 –3.2
Vir­ginia +2.5 –1.2 +6.3 –1.0 –0.2
Wis­con­sin +12.7 +9.0 +13.9 +6.6 +2.4

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.

Con­clu­sion

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.