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A Year Out, the National Landscape Is Changing

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There is a growing body of evidence that the national political environment which led to big GOP gains in 2010 has ended, and is giving way to a new environment much more favorable to the Democrats. While there is a long way to go until the 2012 elections, Republicans have lost the momentum they had and President Obama and the Democratic Party are stronger than current conventional wisdom holds.

The evidence is all around us right now. The national debate has shifted off the GOP-favorable economic frame of deficits to one more Democratic which starts with jobs, growth and incomes. The Republican presidential field this year is more goofy reality show than parade of accomplished, serious leaders eager to tackle the challenges of the moment. The just-completed 2011 fall elections were full of good news for Democrats across the country, with the recall and defeat of Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, the arrogant architect of a new national wave of racially charged anti-immigration initiatives, by a bi-partisan civic-minded coalition, perhaps the most significant.

At a national level the two most often cited memes of conventional wisdom right now is that the bad economy will make it next to impossible for the President to be re-elected, and that the anger out there about the economy will hurt incumbents of both parties. There are of course other possible outcomes, including it being a very good year for the Democrats. I want to explore that possibility for the rest of this essay, using the new WSJ/NBC Poll as a starting place and adding in some data from a new Univision-Latino Decisions poll. Consider:

President Obama is Stronger, Romney Weaker - President Obama is beating Mitt Romney in a direct head to head, 49% to 43%, up from 46%/44% in October. This puts Obama almost at 50, and at the same margin of victory as his landslide victory in 2008.

Going deeper into the data there are many examples one can find of unexpected Obama strengths and surprising early Romney weakness. 64 percent say that Obama has performed better or just about as expected. On basic favorability, his number is net positive, 45/40. In all the measures about favorability and enthusiasm, Romney fares much worse than President Obama. Romney's favorability with Republican voters is only 46 percent; on whether folks will vote with enthusiasm for a candidate 50% say they will for Obama and only 41% for Romney; and on an interesting question of "never vote for," Romney comes in at 47%, Obama only 44%. For Romney's "never vote for" to be this high this early, and to be higher than the supposedly un-electable President Obama, was one of the more surprising findings of the poll.

On the question of who the nation blames for the bad economy, in one question only 21% blame the President, 36% blame President Bush and 34% blame Wall Street. Asked another way 60% say that President Obama inherited the current mess, only 28% say he created it. In another question only 30% say President Obama's policies have "hurt" the economy, while the rest say his policies haven't hurt or even made things better. This suggests Mitt Romney's argument that the "President has failed" in his economic stewardship and that his policies are responsible for what is wrong with the economy is just not going to sell with the American people. These findings reinforce the argument President Obama's campaign has been making that this election will be more about the future than the past, and it will a "choice" election rather than a "throw the bums" out election like in 2010.

Democrats Are Much Stronger As A Party Than the Republicans Right Now - Democrats crush the Republicans in basic favorability, coming in at 40% favorable, 37% unfavorable, with the GOP coming in at 30%/44%. These numbers are remarkable similar to or even a bit better than for Democrats in this same poll a week before the 2006 and 2008 elections, and about 10 points net better than where they were in the last week of 2010.

In Party identification, 46% of voters say they are, or are leaning Democratic, while only 36% say the same about their affinity for the GOP.

Asked whether one was to blame for the nation's problems, 55% choose the Congressional GOP, 47% the Democrats in Congress, and only 36% the President.

What all these numbers tell us is that while the American people are deeply unhappy with Washington, at this point they are not blaming each party equally for has gone wrong. This suggests that the argument that this is shaping up to be a "pox on both your houses," "anti-incumbent" year may be misguided. There is much more unhappiness right now in the country with the Republicans than the Democrats.

If it were shaping up to be a truly anti-incumbent wave year then one would expect the Democrats should be showing much more weakness in Senate contests than they are right now. 23 of the 33 seats up this year are held by incumbent Democrats. Experts point to Democratic losses right now of just 2-5 net seats, something far less than a wave. Conversely, the GOP's unpopularity may make their current House Majority much more fragile than many had predicted.

52 and 53 - In the poll 52% approve of the President's handling of foreign policy, only 41% disapprove. 53 percent of the country voted for President Obama in 2008, the highest margin for a Democrat since 1964, and only the second time a Democrat broke 50.1% of the national vote since 1944. I would wager that no Republican running since the 1940s has faced a Democratic incumbent who had so much residual good will with the public and in such a strong position on national security matters. These numbers suggest a hidden set of strengths for Obama which may be become much more consequential as we enter the general election next year.

The GOP's Latino Problem - A new Univision poll released today has President Obama in surprisingly strong shape with Latino voters, replicating his very strong 2008 showing. Given that in the broader electorate the President is 4-10 points off his 2008 performance, this sign of strength with Latinos has to be seen as a direct result of the escalating attacks on Latinos by the Republicans in recent years. One of the big questions of 2012 will be whether the GOP nominee weakens the Democrat's hold on this very important group. This finding suggests it will be hard for any Republican nominee, but I think it will be particularly hard for Mitt Romney, who has spent more money attacking reasonable immigration positions than any other politician in America over the past few years.

Without question President Obama is facing a tough re-election, and the chances of the Republicans flipping the Senate and holding the House are high. But a year out from 2012 the Republican Party is showing much more weakness and President Obama and the Democrats much more strength than conventional wisdom holds right now. My own simple take for why the environment has shifted is the Republicans are in the process of losing the big argument with the President right now, and their Presidential field is very weak. In this first year after their big 2010 win the Republicans have not shown well, while President Obama and the Democrats seem to be doing a much better job at demonstrating their commitment to advance strategies which will make the lives of ordinary people a bit better.

Much can and will change between now and next November but I think if you told the Democrats that things would be where they are today just after last year's election they would have screamed "We'll take it!"