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Improved feelings about direction of U.S. boosted voter confidence in Obama

Despite talk of Mitt Romney’s momentum in the final weeks of the presidential campaign, Barack Obama cruised to a wide Electoral Vote victory and his popular-vote margin wound up closely mirroring George W. Bush’s 2004 victory.

In fact, voter confidence in the president consistently improved as Election Day neared and was nearly the identical level Bush had before his reelection, a review of data for the NBC News Voter Confidence Index shows.

President Obama’s VCI score was -11 for the month of October, exactly the same as Bush’s score in October 2004.

Despite his first debate performance and Romney’s claim of momentum, Obama never saw a drop in that period in the VCI. Obama’s VCI went from -29 in August to -15 in September to -11 in October and -10 in the first week of November.

And that improvement was squarely because Americans told pollsters in the fall they felt better about the direction of the country.

The VCI uses a combination of the president’s job approval rating, the direction of the country, and the so-called generic congressional ballot, which tracks voter preference between parties rather than individual candidates. There is equal weight given to all three questions. The difference between two sets of numbers in each question is calculated and then added up.

For example, Obama’s average job approval rating for the month of October was +2; the direction of the country average score was -14; and the generic congressional ballot was +1 for a -11.

Obama’s average approval rating remained fairly consistent throughout the 2012 campaign. It hit its lowest point (-8) right after the debt-ceiling debacle in September 2011. Combining the bad direction of the country score (-52) with the generic ballot (Republican were ahead by 3 points that month), Obama had his worst VCI score of his presidency : -63.

No president had ever been reelected with a VCI that bad. Jimmy Carter had a -72 VCI right before the 1980 election he lost. George H.W. Bush was -84 right before the 1992 election he lost.

The successful presidents reelected since 1980 – Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton – enjoyed high VCI scores. Reagan stood at +62 in 1984 before his landslide victory. Clinton was at +45 before his sweeping reelection over Republican Bob Dole.

The generic ballot portion of the VCI in 2012 also remained consistent with Democrats holding a slight lead most months.

But direction of the country is what really moved and likely buoyed the president to a second term. More Americans said they were more optimistic about the direction of the country as November 2012 neared. It went from a nadir of -56 in October 2011 to -23 in March by the time the GOP presidential primary wrapped up.

The VCI score for direction of the country stayed in the -20s through July, dipped to -30 in August and then began to break through that plateau after the parties' conventions. The score improved to -19 in September, the best since May 2011 – the month Osama bin Laden was killed.

Before that, direction of the country hadn’t been that strong since January 2010. And at that point, it was trending in the other direction.

The direction of the country average improved again in October to -14 and again in that first week of November to -13.

It’s clear that how people feel about the country -- whether it’s headed off on the wrong track or in the right direction -- is perhaps the most telling indicator of whether a president will be reelected.