With 2009 now in the rear-view mirror, the weekly tracking poll offered to the readers of Daily Kos allows for an interesting graphical look at the political winds of the year that was.
One thing becomes evident almost immediately: the pivotal month of the year in the realm of politics was the month of August. This is perhaps most evident in the favorability ratings for President Barack Obama:
While the graph shows downward movement throughout the first eight months of the year, it is worth noting that the initial slide was predictable, and in line with pretty much every president as their inaugural honeymoon dissipates.
No one (not even Obama, one presumes) believed his favorabilities would stay north of 65% forever.
But, in the heat of the August recess, that downward shift became more sharp. The president's net favorability went from +26 on July 30th (62/36) to a mere +9 on September 3rd (52/43).
While his well-received address on health care the following week (and the absurd GOP flap over his speech to the schoolchildren of America) staunched the bleeding, the President's numbers have basically plateaued since then. He has never recovered the favorability that he had before the month of August.
What might be most alarming for Obama, and by extension the Democratic Party, is that while the President has recovered the adoration of his base (his favorables have actually ticked up a few points since July with Democrats, from 88% to 90%), his numbers with Independents have dipped palpably. What was 70% favorability prior to the August recess now sits at just 54%.
There could be a couple of reasons for this. The right-wing analysis, predictably, is that Independents are appalled by the super-scary socialist stuff, and are repelled by it. That would not explain, however, why only 26% of Independents want a Republican Congress, while the majority are still on the fence about their voting intentions for 2010.
A second explanation is that Independents, since they are not married to either political party, are more about results than they are about particular political positions. The remedy, in that scenario, is simple for Democrats: get things done.
As it stands, Independents have consistently expressed a lower degree of favorability for Republicans in Congress and in the Congressional leadership, which is why the GOP's Congressional entities have consistently polled lower than their Democratic counterparts this year:
What was once a wide gap has tightened somewhat (helped especially by a surge of support for the GOP from its Republican base in that pivotal month of August), but there is still a pretty substantial gap between the two parties.
There is one other unique trend in these numbers. Notice how, as the health care fight escalated through the latter half of the year, the numbers for Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid diverged noticeably.
Reid, it must be noted, did make something of a comeback in the final few weeks of 2009.
Does this divergence between the two parties mean that the conventional wisdom forecasting gloomy 2010 prospects for Democrats are unjustified? The simple answer, unfortunately for Democrats, is: no.
For one thing, as we have tracked over the last month, there is a substantial gap in the relative levels of voting enthusiasm in 2010. This reached an alarming level at the close of the year, where the final tracking poll of the year showed that 45% of Democrats now say that they are either unlikely to vote or certain not to do it.
For another thing, Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling said in November that he suspects that people who hold neither political party in esteem will be more likely to vote Republican. His logic: if they are dissatisfied with the course of the country, they'll vote for the party that offers the greatest likelihood of change from the present circumstance.
This might explain the relatively narrow advantage for Democrats over the last few months of the year on our variation of the Generic Ballot test for the 2010 elections (note: this question did not make its debut in our tracking poll until May):
When the Democrats swept to their large majority in November of 2008, they led the GOP by just over seven percentage points in the aggregate national House vote. More often than not, Democrats have led the GOP by margins less than seven points since the late summer. This would imply, at least on the surface, that the goal for Democrats will be to minimize the number of seats they shed in the 2010 midterms.
Of course, there are still more than ten months to go in the 2010 campaign cycle. Anyone interested in the predictive value of polling might want to look at one statistic that is highlighted weekly in the Daily Kos tracking poll:
It is worth noting that the right track/wrong track metric is not an inviolable predictor of political fortune. After all, Democrats padded their majorities in 2008, despite that particular metric resting at its most pessimistic point in recent history.
The difference between then and now, however, is that there were several places for voters to direct their anger. By virtue of having a deeply unpopular President in the White House, the Republican Party bore the overwhelming brunt of voter disdain.
In 2010, of course, voter anger is likely to be concentrated on the party-in-power. And, unlike 2008, there is only one party in power.
Therefore, Democrats need to see a dramatic shift in the right track/wrong track metric. And the sooner, the better. If they can succeed in raising voter optimism about the state of the nation, their majority will be considerably more comfortable than it is at present.