Last Friday’s drop in the unemployment rate from 8.5 to 8.3 percent marked the fifth consecutive month of declines in the jobless rate. This decline adds to a growing body of evidence that there are some subtle but important shifting sands in the 2012 election. The broader “U-6” index adds up the percentage of unemployed people with those working part-time who want full-time work, and with those who have given up looking at all. This number has dropped for four consecutive months from 16.4 percent in September to 15.1 percent today. It is still a horrifically high rate but headed in the right direction. As the economic-consulting firm ISI Group has noted, last week marked the 18th consecutive week of more positive than negative economic news. As a result, polls show an increase in the number of Americans saying the country is headed in the right direction, while the number of those who say it is off on the wrong track are in decline.
Unquestionably, there are a lot of economic dangers ahead, not the least of which is the likelihood of a recession—and possible financial crisis—in Europe. Because of this, many economists add a great deal of caution to what little optimism they have. But the public is reacting somewhat less guardedly, with consumer-confidence ratings running at their highest levels since May and with a bit of an uptick in President Obama’s job-approval ratings. There were 23 consecutive weeks of Gallup weekly job-approval ratings running 44 percent or less since the week of July 11-17. His approval has now run 45 percent or higher for six out of the last seven weeks. This past week’s (Jan. 30-Feb. 5) approval rating of 46 percent, with 47 percent disapproval, is still “underwater,” as pollsters say. It does, though, reflect a different pattern than what had existed since midsummer.
But the volatility that we have seen in the last three elections still very much exists: This is a very unstable political climate. One way of looking at it is that the favorability ratings of the Democratic Party and Democrats in Congress are lousy, but those of the Republican Party and Republicans in Congress are even worse. Republicans need to keep a close eye on the generic congressional ballot. An assortment of firms—partisan and independent—and joint bipartisan polling efforts are showing an unusually wide range of readings on the generic ballot test. Democrats are ahead by anywhere from a statistically insignificant 1 point in the Politico/GWU/Battleground poll, by the Republican firm the Tarrance Group and Democratic firm Lake Research Partners, to a whopping 11-point margin in the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll. Even the Rasmussen Reports poll, which almost never has Democrats ahead on the generic, recently put Democrats in front by a point.
My hunch is that the reality lies somewhere in between. It is around the 3-point Democratic advantage in the Democracy Corps survey, conducted by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and strategist James Carville (which actually names the incumbents in each race), and a 6-point advantage in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, conducted by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff. Over the years, there seems to be a default Democratic advantage of maybe 3 points. But we are seeing more credible public and private polls coming in above that margin than below. This may or may not be a trend. But polling also shows that there are considerable weaknesses in the Republican message. Independents are unhappy with President Obama and/or Democrats. At the same time, they are showing increased skepticism with the GOP messaging.
As it grows more apparent that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee, he presumably will have freedom to start downshifting his rhetoric a bit and focusing more on independents. But he would do so with a conservative base that is already highly suspicious of him, so he may have to make that shift from a nomination campaign to a general-election campaign slower than otherwise might be the case. Romney also might have to take a longer time before earnestly pursuing independent voters.
In short, this campaign is at a new and different place: The odds of it being a very close race have gone up. A lot of Democrats didn’t want to admit how much of an uphill battle Obama faced for much of last year, but he really did. Now, signals are more conflicting. Many GOP strategists express concern that the situation has gone from one in which they were cautiously optimistic to one of uncertainty as to where it is headed. That sounds right to me.
This article appears in the Feb. 7, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.