After months of "Democrats are doomed" chatter, there's been a definite shift in mood and momentum toward the party in power. Republicans are openly fretting about their flawed and under-funded Senate candidates, while Democrats, who not long ago were bemoaning fumbles by the White House and Democratic leadership in Congress, are now sharing "Dark Brandon" memes and polling data showing Democrats ahead in key Senate contests.
But is all of this just a vibe shift? Or has there been real movement toward Democrats?
The first place to look for meaningful movement in the fundamentals is in opinions of President Biden. According to the FiveThirtyEight tracker, President Biden's job approval rating is up almost 3 points from late July (which was also his all-time low). Even so, that only brings his job approval rating to 40.4 percent. That's still a really, really weak number.
The next thing we would expect to see if we were talking about something more substantive than a 'vibe shift' is increased optimism about the state of the economy. The most recent Michigan Consumer Index found a slight improvement in economic optimism in August. "Consumer sentiment moved up very slightly this month to about five index points above the all-time low reached in June," wrote Surveys of Consumers Director Joanne Hsu. "All components of the expectations index improved this month, particularly among low and middle income consumers for whom inflation is particularly salient." Even so, consumer sentiment is still 15 points lower than it was at this point a year ago.
Moreover, voters aren't giving Biden — or his party — strong marks on their handling of the economy. The most recent Navigator Research survey found Biden's job approval ratings on the economy deeply underwater at 38 percent approve to 60 percent disapprove (-22). And, when asked who they trusted more to handle top issues like inflation and rebuilding the economy, Republicans had an eight and six-point advantage, respectively over Biden and Democrats.
To succeed in the midterms, Democrats don't necessarily need voters to think that the economy is awesome, but they do need voters to believe that it is getting better.
"I think it's unlikely that voters are going to suddenly turn on a dime and think the economy is good in the next couple months," said Jay Campbell, a partner at the Democratic polling firm Hart Research and director of CNBC's All-America Economic Survey, a quarterly survey which has been tracking Americans opinion of the state of the economy for the last 14 years. "In mid-2008, 63% said the economy was "poor," and in September 2012, 53% still felt that way. It takes a long time and a LOT of improvement for positive sentiment in the public to catch up."
The challenge for Democrats this year, as opposed to the mid-2000s, Campbell told me, was "that for much of that mid '08 to mid '12 period people were more likely to say the economy would get better in the next 12 months than to say it would get worse—the "worse" number was only higher one time. Comparatively, the "worse" number has been higher than "better" in each of our five polls from July '21 to July' 22—and in the last poll there was a 30-point gap and the first time in the CNBC poll that a majority (52%) said things would get worse."
In other words, it's not just that people are feeling that the economy is doing badly, it's that they are more pessimistic than ever that it can or will get better anytime soon.
So, if Biden isn't getting all that more popular, and opinions about the economy aren't that much more positive, why are down-ballot Democrats running so far ahead of Biden in recent polling?
One big reason is that for the last six weeks or so, the media spotlight has been off of Biden and focused instead on issues that put Republicans on the defensive, like abortion, January 6th and Donald Trump. That has helped to erode Republicans' previous advantage as the party that is more in tune with voters' day-to-day concerns.
"Each week that goes by, more and more people see the GOP as increasingly focused on the wrong things," veteran Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson told me. "They're focused on what ignites right-wing social media and what pleases the former President, not on what matters to the American people. It's like a CEO promising to rehab a company by focusing on renovating the executives' parking spaces."
For example, in May, the Navigator Research survey found that just 43 percent of voters thought that Democrats were "mostly" or "somewhat" focused on the "right things," while 49 percent said Democrats were mostly or somewhat focused on the "wrong things." Republicans, however, were seen as somewhat more in touch: 47 percent said that Republicans were focused on the right things, while 44 percent thought they were concentrating on the wrong things.
By August, however, that GOP advantage had evaporated. Just 42 percent of voters thought the GOP was focused on the right things compared to 51 percent who said they were focused on the wrong things; a 12-point shift in the wrong direction. Even so, Democrats haven't made up any ground. A majority (52 percent), think that Democrats haven't been focused on the right things, while just 43 percent think that they have; a three-point shift in the wrong direction since May.
In other words, it's not that voters think Democrats are doing better; it's that they think Republicans are as out-of-touch as as Democrats.
Will the drop in gas prices, favorable media coverage of the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, and a laser-like focus on selling the most popular elements of that new law, convince enough voters that Democrats are indeed "on their side"? Or, will Republican ads that link persistently high prices at the grocery store and gas pump to Democratic policy decisions, be more effective?
Earlier this week, I was able to see how this match-up of messages might play out with voters this fall. At a focus group of white male swing voters, the moderator presented a list of Democratic accomplishments, including things like the infrastructure bill, the Recovery Act, and, of course, the newly passed Inflation Reduction Act. Also noted were low unemployment and strong job growth. When asked to respond, a man from Georgia replied, "I don't disagree with anything here. But, I am paying double for lumber and groceries than I was three years ago."
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