By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 3/12/2008 6:58:47 PM ET 2008-03-12T22:58:47

Are you better off now than you were four years ago?

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This has become a fundamental question in presidential elections. And for the first time since 1992, a plurality of voters heading into November’s election answer that question with a resounding no, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Forty-three percent say that they and their families are worse off, compared with 34 percent who say they’re better off; 21 percent respond that their status is the same. By contrast, strong pluralities or majorities answered that they were better off before entering the general elections in 1996, 2000 and 2004 — when, with the exception of the extremely close 2000 race, the incumbent party held onto the presidency.

Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with GOP pollster Bill McInturff, suggests that these new numbers are more good news for a Democratic Party trying to take back the White House. “The compass points due north for the party of change.”

But after more than 40 nominating contests, that party is still undecided about the candidate it will place on the top of the ticket — Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama. In the poll, Clinton has a four-point national lead over Obama, 47 percent to 43 percent.

Yet that is the survey’s closest margin between the two Democratic presidential candidates. In January’s NBC/Journal poll, which was conducted after Clinton’s victories in New Hampshire and Nevada, she led Obama 53 percent to 37 percent.

Where has Obama made up ground? McInturff point outs that the Illinois senator is now winning among men and, by a considerable margin, African Americans. In December, Clinton was leading among both groups.

Although Clinton is ahead in this poll, Obama is viewed among Democrats — by 48 percent to 38 percent — as the candidate having a better chance of defeating Sen. John McCain, the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee.

But the poll shows that Clinton and Obama would run equally close contests against the Arizona Republican. In a hypothetical matchup, Obama leads McCain by three points, 47-44 percent, which is within the survey’s margin of error. Clinton, meanwhile, leads McCain by a similar margin, 47-45 percent.

“Statistically, there is no difference between how Obama runs against McCain or Clinton runs against McCain,” Hart says. “The difference is that Hillary … runs stronger with the Democratic base, and that Barack Obama reaches into a little bit broader group of voters,” such as  independents.

Both matchups against McCain, however, are much closer than the poll’s generic ballot result, in which a Democrat beats a Republican 50-37 percent. This all suggests that, despite the advantages Democrats have going into the fall election, a presidential election against McCain would be an extremely competitive contest.

And it would be a contest in which style might trump substance. When asked which consideration is more important — ideas and policies for the future or leadership style and trustworthiness — 48 percent picked leadership style and trustworthiness, while just 32 percent chose ideas and policies.

Video: Russert crunches the numbers The poll also finds that there is concern among Democrats that if the Clinton-Obama race continues through June, it could hurt the party. In it, 38 percent say that an extended nominating battle would be bad for the Democratic Party, versus 25 percent who see it as a good thing.

One of the survey’s more striking findings is the diminished standing of former President Bill Clinton, whom some have seen as campaigning too aggressively for his wife — and against Obama.

More respondents in the poll view him in a negative light (45 percent) than in a positive one (42 percent). It’s a marked change from a year ago, when Clinton’s positive rating (48 percent) was higher than his negative score (35 percent).

In particular, Clinton’s support among African Americans and Obama supporters has eroded.

The NBC/Journal poll was conducted March 7-10 of 1,012 registered voters, and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

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