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In Presidential Polling, Context Always Matters

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows increasing damage to the image of likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. But, Stuart Rothenberg writes, when you put some of the numbers in context, the situation becomes much less clear.

Iíve always liked the NBC News/Wall Street Journal pollís wording on the generic Congressional ballot ó respondents are asked whether they would like a Congress controlled by Republicans or Democrats ó and the most recent survey shows Democrats with an advantage of 47 percent to 41 percent, a marked change from August, when Republicans held a 6-point  advantage.

In the generic presidential ballot, Obama leads an unnamed Republican candidate, 47 percent to 42 percent, and he is ahead against Romney by a similar margin, 49 percent to 43 percent. Against former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and ex-Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), Obama is well above 50 percent. (A Gallup poll conducted a few days after this one showed Obama and Romney tied at 48 percent.)

Romneyís standing has taken a particularly hard hit among independents, who see him less favorably than before and are more inclined to support the president against the former Massachusetts governor.

All of this is true and reflects a shift in opinion. But here is where context comes in.

This survey was conducted after the holiday break. Congress had been out of town, the president had largely been out of the headlines, and Americans spent much of the last month enjoying and then recovering from the holidays.

The only politics that Americans have seen recently is weeks of Republicans beating each other up in the presidential race.

Gingrich says how terrible Romney is. Santorum says how terrible Romney (and sometimes Gingrich) is. And Romney says how terrible Gingrich is. Itís the classic circular firing squad.

And after a month of Republicans assassinating Republicans, guess what? Polls find that the public at large has an increasingly poor impression of the Republican Party and GOP White House hopefuls. Thatís not at all unusual.

Remember, of course, that all of this is occurring during a strengthening stock market, a drop in the unemployment rate and talk on television and in newspapers of an improving, albeit still sluggish, economy.

And yet, when you put some of the numbers in context, the situation is less clear. The new surveyís right direction/wrong track (30 percent/61 percent) isnít much different than the result in the late October 2010 poll (31 percent/60 percent), when Republicans won a huge victory. Obamaís current job approval (48 percent) is only a single point better than it was in mid-October 2010 (47 percent).

Even more noteworthy, the current 6-point Democratic advantage on the generic ballot is only a little better than the partyís 2-point advantage in October 2010 and is far smaller than its 13-point advantage right before the 2008 elections.

But even if the economy doesnít move one way or the other decisively, you can bet that the partisan argument will heat up again, putting the president back into focus and into the center of the political discussion.

And when the GOP race ends, probably well before the convention in August, voters will start to compare the two nominees across a large number of dimensions during a very spirited campaign.

Iíd bet that only then will independents, who are more sensitive to short-term factors and the national mood, seriously consider the two nominees and decide how they will vote. And only then will we get a reliable handle on the shape of the electorate heading toward Election Day.

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