The American public, over the past few weeks, seems to have gotten more optimistic about the future. These recent gains have been somewhat modest and still far below a majority of the public being optimistic, but if this trend continues for the next month or so it will likely help President Obama's chances of being re-elected.
While Obama has been enjoying a post-convention "bounce" in polls that ask which candidate Americans plan on voting for (and also in Obama's job approval numbers), there's another question pollsters ask that hasn't been getting as much attention. This question is usually posed as some form of: "Do you think the country is generally heading in the right direction, or have things gotten off on the wrong track?" It's supposed to measure general optimism and pessimism about the country's near future.
During the 2008 presidential election, the "right track" numbers dropped dismally, hitting single digits at times, while the "wrong track" numbers climbed above 80 percent (to put the rest of this post in some perspective). After Obama took office, the numbers improved until the summer of 2009, when they briefly hit parity, at roughly 45 percent for "right track" and 45 percent "wrong track" alike.
Unfortunately for President Obama, this is the highest point he would ever see on this poll question. Since then (since Obama's "honeymoon period" wore off), the right track numbers slowly fell, and the wrong track numbers climbed, until Obama saw the worst pessimism of his first term in office roughly a year ago. Last October, the Real Clear Politics average for this question hit the Bush-level low of only 17 percent right track to a whopping 76.5 percent who thought America was on the wrong track -- a deficit of almost 60 points.
Since this nadir, however, Americans' optimism has been slowly recovering. As the economic news got better at the beginning of 2012, the right track number grew to a high of 35 percent at the end of February. For the rest of the year, however, the right track number fell back slightly, staying in the low 30s range and never again hitting above 34 percent. At the beginning of this month, right track was at 32 percent and wrong track was roughly double that, at 62.8 percent.
At the end of the first week of September, though, this changed for the better in fairly dramatic fashion. Pollsters started reporting right track numbers of 39, 40, even 42 percent. Wrong track numbers fell to lows not seen since 2009. Within days, the averages hit 38.8 percent right track and 55.2 percent wrong track at Real Clear Politics.
Depending on how you measure it, this represented a 5- to 10-point shift towards optimism inside of a single week -- which is pretty astounding. Seen on a chart, it is a major spike upwards in a very short period of time.
What caused this optimistic shift in the American mood is open to interpretation, as always. Pollsters don't ask things like, "Why are you more optimistic now than you were two weeks ago?" which leaves us all to draw our own conclusions. However, two events took place during the week when things spiked, and both likely had an impact. The first was the Democratic National Convention, and the second was the monthly release of unemployment data. Again, how much either influenced people is open to interpretation.
My guess is they both helped. Seeing Bill Clinton explain things (and seeing the Democrats put on a rather optimistic show all around) may have reminded a whole bunch of people why they elected Barack Obama in the first place. The national unemployment rate fell from 8.3 percent to 8.1 percent, and this was trumped as "very bad news" by pundits left, right, and center -- but in this case, Americans may have focused on the actual numbers rather than the pundits.
It is almost impossible to make the argument that this development in optimism does anything other than help Obama's chances for re-election. Now, a sharp spike in optimism can, in certain cases during an election, signal good news for a challenger over an incumbent. If, for instance, the race were an absolute blowout for Romney at this stage, then the rise in optimism might be attributed to the American public knowing Romney will win, and getting more optimistic about a future under President Romney. As I said, though, it's extremely difficult to make this case right now, for the simple fact that Romney is nowhere near the "absolute blowout" level. Most recent polls, in fact, show he's going to lose. In most cases, a more optimistic public right before a presidential election favors the incumbent. As it does in this case.
Of course, this doesn't mean it's time to pop champagne corks and celebrate Obama's second term quite yet. There are all kinds of caveats. Even a split of 40 percent optimistic to 55 percent pessimistic still leaves a 15-point gap in the wrong direction. This is much better than a 2-1 split the wrong way, though, or even Obama's low point of being almost 60 points behind on the question.
Obama's poll bounce may not hold and may fade away -- polling on the right/wrong track question is not done as often as other polling, and Rasmussen seems to have an outsized influence on the averages due to polling the question more than others.
The trend, since it appeared so immediately, may reverse itself, hold steady, or increase in the coming weeks. But there are only so many weeks left before the election. For now, the Obama team has to be pleased at the turn in America's outlook. It's a lot easier to make the "four more years" argument when people are already feeling better about the country's future, to put it another way.
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