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July 2: Obama’s Lead Holds, but Manufacturing Report Could Mean Trouble

President Obama’s position improved modestly in Monday’s FiveThirtyEight presidential forecast. He is given a 68.6 percent chance of winning the Electoral College on Nov. 6, up slightly from 67.8 percent on Friday.

Mr. Obama broke something of a stalemate in the forecast last week, buoyed by a series of national and battleground state polls that showed him slightly ahead of Mitt Romney. He was also helped by increasing investor optimism about the situation in Europe after a debt agreement there, which manifested itself in a stock market rally and correspondingly improved the model’s economic index.

Two new national polls out on Monday showed Mr. Obama with a lead over Mr. Romney, including the Gallup tracking poll, which had him five percentage points ahead. A third poll, from Rasmussen Reports, had him slipping behind Mr. Romney over the weekend.

Mr. Obama’s position in the polls seems to have improved slightly from the middle of June, but the reason remains somewhat unclear. There has been relatively little change in Mr. Obama’s approval ratings, which could suggest the change in national polls is in part a statistical fluke. The model’s view in June had been that the national polls slightly underestimated Mr. Obama’s standing: state-level data had seemed to suggest that he was slightly ahead of Mr. Romney rather than tied with him. Now, the national polls may be slightly overestimating his numbers instead.

State-level data is easy to misread. But if used carefully, it can sometimes help to differentiate between a substantive change in the race and noisy national data. In my view, it will be more appropriate to speculate about the reasons for the improvement in Mr. Obama’s numbers, if and when it is confirmed by relatively strong polls for Mr. Obama in battleground states over the next few weeks.

It remains too early to say what, if any, effect the Supreme Court’s health care ruling will have on the race. Some polls suggested a very modest increase in support for Mr. Obama’s health care bill after the court’s ruling, but most still showed a narrow plurality of voters opposing it. CNN’s poll also found that enthusiasm among Republican and Democratic voters had increased.

For most voters, however, health care remains a secondary issue as compared with the economy. On the economic front, there was some poor news for Mr. Obama in the form of a manufacturing report which showed a sharp decrease in orders for new goods.

The report, from the Institute for Supply Management, is not used directly in FiveThirtyEight’s forecast. However, a highly correlated data series, industrial production, is used in the index, and the report could portend a slowdown when that data is released this month.

The manufacturing report is consistent with a pattern in which mildly encouraging news about the economy, like in Europe and in the housing market last week, seems to be offset by negative news from another sector. Manufacturing activity had been a bright spot in the economy for most of the first half of the year and may be especially important in the swing states of the Midwest.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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