The results of the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Monday confirm previous survey data that show the Republican Party has suffered brand damage over the past few months. The GOP’s self-absorption and obsession with pleasing its conservative base in presidential candidates’ rhetoric and in policy initiatives at the congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative levels have taken a toll. While tea party folks like to boast that they provided the GOP with its majority in 2010, I didn’t notice many of them voting to put Nancy Pelosi in as House speaker in 2006 or to elect Barack Obama president in 2008. In the Bible, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. In politics, it is pretty much independents who giveth and taketh away.
In one telling finding, NBC News/WSJ pollsters Peter Hart (a Democrat) and Bill McInturff (a Republican) asked, “Which political party do you think currently does a better job of appealing to people who are not among its hard-core supporters—the Democratic Party or the Republican Party?” A whopping 55 percent said Democrats appeal more to those outside their base. This is compared with only 26 percent who said that was true of the Republican Party. The survey also showed a continued higher trend of negative ratings for the GOP that started a few months ago. It is further evidence that nothing kills success like excess.
The survey, conducted Feb. 29-March 3 among 800 adults nationwide, found that 33 percent of Americans thought the country was headed in the right direction, while 58 percent said it was off on the wrong track. While this is a bad set of numbers, the right direction ran in the 17-to-19 percent range in August, October, and November. The wrong track was in the 73-74 percent range. The right direction began turning up in December to 22 percent, and it rose to 30 percent in January, before the most recent 33 percent. The wrong track dropped to 69 percent and 61 percent in December and January, respectively, before the current 58 percent.
President Obama’s job-approval rating, which had been at 44 percent in three consecutive NBC News/WSJ polls in August, October, and November, edged up to 46 percent in December. It was 48 percent in January. Now it is up to 50 percent in the new survey. The disapproval rates dropped from 51 percent for three months to 48 percent, then to 46 percent, and now to 45 percent. The Gallup Organization’s national tracking survey conducted March 1-3 put Obama’s job-approval rating at 48 percent, with 45 percent disapproval, although those numbers reversed in the March 2-4 track.
For all of the public attention paid to the general-election trial-heat figures, once you get well within a year before an election, the job-approval rating is a far better predictor of how an incumbent president is going to fare. The 48-50 percent approval range is the minimum that an incumbent wants to see to have a reasonable expectation of winning reelection. In 2004, President George W. Bush had a 48 percent approval rating in his final, preelection Gallup poll. He squeaked by Sen. John Kerry with a 51 percent to 48 percent victory.
An improving economic picture and self-inflicted Republican wounds have combined to boost Democratic fortunes right now. Quantifying how much things have changed, the Wall Street economic consulting firm ISI Group records how many positive and negative economic developments occur each week. The firm found that in the period from the week of May 23, 2011, through the week of Oct. 3, 2011, there was more negative than positive economic news in 16 out of 20 weeks. Since the week of Oct. 10, 2011, however, we now have had 22 weeks in a row of more positive news.
To be sure, this economy is enormously fragile, with dangerous landmines—including rising oil prices and a recession in Europe—ahead. But all you can judge is the here and now, which is a lot better than just four months ago. The effect of better economic news on President Obama’s numbers, along with the brand damage Republicans have been inflicting on themselves and likely nominee Mitt Romney, have probably boosted Democratic hopes artificially high and depressed the value of the GOP stock.
Based more on “micro” race-by-race developments, The Cook Political Report has adjusted its current forecast from a net gain of between three and six seats for Republicans in the Senate to a likely gain of between three and five. It could drop to a two-to-five range, depending upon who ends up running for the newly open Republican Senate seat being vacated by Maine’s Olympia Snowe. In the House, we’ve adjusted our forecast from somewhere between a wash and a net Democratic gain of 10 seats to, now, a Democratic gain of between five and 15 seats. That still would leave Democrats short of the 25 seats they need to win a majority.
It’s worth reminding folks that there is an ebb and flow to politics. We may just be at a pro-Democratic ebb at this point. Eight months, though, is a long time to go.
This article appears in the March 6, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.