Not much in the just-released NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conflicts with the story line that we’re going to see a lot of close races this fall. Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican poll-taker Bill McInturff found that 48 percent of the 1,000 American adults interviewed (including a subsample of cell-phone users) approve of the job that President Obama has done. This percentage is 2 points short of the 50 percent approval rating that would signal he is a favorite for reelection. A rating below 46 percent suggests that a president is toast. Obama is right in the middle—in the 47 percent to 49 percent zone—suggesting an equal chance of winning or losing.
One source of good news for Democrats is that Obama draws a 51 percent approval rating on foreign policy; the bad news is that voters don’t seem likely to vote on foreign-policy matters this year. Conversely, the president got his worst approval rating on the economy: Just 43 percent approve of his handling of economic matters while 52 percent disapprove. Unfortunately for Democrats, the economy is the issue that does seem to be of paramount importance to voters.
Institutionally, Obama and the Democratic Party should take some solace in their (rather tepid) favorability ratings: 49 percent positive and 41 percent negative for Obama; 39 percent positive and 40 percent negative for the party. An odd couple of Vice President Joe Biden and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney were joined by almost indistinguishable numbers: 35 percent positive and 37 percent negative for Biden; 34 percent positive and 38 percent negative for Romney. Bringing up the rear are three institutions: Bain Capital, the private-equity firm that Romney once led, scored 9 percent positive and 19 percent negative; the Republican Party came in with 32 percent positive and 43 percent negative; and JPMorgan Chase, which just disclosed a multibillion-dollar-trading loss, came in last, with 11 percent positive and 49 percent negative.
Only 33 percent of Americans who responded to the survey felt that the country is headed in the right direction—unchanged from the March and April surveys. Fifty-eight percent thought the country was off on the wrong track—the same as March and a point lower than April. These numbers are pretty consistent with the downbeat results that this question has elicited for the past four years.
The soberness of the American spirit is evident when Hart and McInturff asked, “All in all, thinking about where the United States is today, do you feel we are experiencing the kind of tough times that the country faces from time to time, or is this the start of longer-term decline where the U.S. is no longer the leading country in the world?” Forty five percent picked the temporarily-experiencing-a-tough-time response; 48 percent endorsed the start of a long-term decline.
On the generic congressional ballot test, 44 percent of the subsample of registered voters preferred a Democratic-controlled Congress; 43 percent would rather see a Republican Congress. (This question typically has about a 2-point tilt toward the Democrats.) My interpretation is that this result, not far off from the 46 percent Democratic, 44 percent Republican in the April NBC/WSJ survey, points to a tightening of the margins in Congress. But it does not signify the level of gains that Democrats need to capture a majority. In short, the generic poll results support the race-by-race assessments of political handicappers: Democrats will gain House seats but will come up short of control.
In terms of the presidential trial-heat figures, among registered voters, Obama leads Romney by 4 percentage points: 47 percent to 43 percent, with 11 percent saying they are unsure. Well-known and well-defined incumbents generally draw fewer undecided voters in the end than lesser-defined challengers do, so for incumbents, what you see is what you get. Generally, though, an incumbent with 49 or 50 percent will fall over the finish line first. Final polls of 47 or 48 percent signal more trouble.
Republicans should be concerned that 29 percent of respondents identified themselves as Democrats, because only 22 percent of them said they were Republican. When independents are pushed to lean one way or the other, Democrats pick up another 15 points and Republicans gain 14 points. The result is 44 percent identifying themselves or leaning Democrat compared with 36 percent identifying as or leaning toward the GOP; 11 percent identified themselves as pure independents, not leaning either way; and another 4 percent either refused to say or didn’t know, bringing the total in the middle to 15 percent.
Starting with 44 percent, Democrats need to win the support of only about half of the 15 percent in the middle. Republicans, coming from a much smaller share of the independent and nonaligned slice of voters to win, need all 15 percent to reach a majority. In short, it’s a lot more important for Republicans to extend beyond their base than it is for Democrats.
Conversely, Democrats have to worry about getting out the vote among some of their strongest groups. Overall, 81 percent of respondents rate themselves as 8’s, 9’s, or 10’s in terms of interest in this election, meaning they are very likely to vote. Obama won 66 percent of the 18-to-29-year-olds in 2008; only 64 percent indicated to Hart and McInturff’s interviewers that they were 8’s, 9’s, or 10’s for this November’s election. Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote last time; only 68 percent in the survey were 8’s, 9’s, or 10’s. Among African-Americans, Obama won 95 percent of the vote; 83 percent were 8’s, 9’s, or 10’s, meaning that African-Americans are significantly more interested in this election than the other two groups. The poll has an enormous amount of data, and very little of it pushes toward a strong conclusion in favor of either Obama or Romney. More evidence that a tight race is in the offing.
This article appears in the May 26, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.