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Midterm Outlook for Democrats is Better, But Far From Good

Obama’s job-approval rating now stands at 44%, a three-point increase from last month.
Voters in voting booths are blurred by the action of a zoom lens at the Oklahoma County Election Board during early voting in Oklahoma City, Friday, Oct. 29, 2010. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)Sue Ogrocki / AP

Better vs. Good

Bill McInturff, the Republican half of our NBC/WSJ poll, perhaps summed up our latest survey the best: The poll shows that things are better for President Obama and the Democrats after eight million Americans enrolled on the health-care exchanges. But they are still far from good. Obama’s job-approval rating now stands at 44%, a three-point increase from last month, though that movement falls within the poll’s margin of error. For the first time since early October (before the federal health-care website’s disastrous launch became a months-long national story) the president’s personal favorable/unfavorable rating is right-side up, at 44% positive and 41% negative. And 36% see the health-care law as a good idea, versus 46% who view it as a bad idea -- a slight uptick from 35% good idea and 49% bad idea back in March. Bottom line: Obama’s standing is pretty much back to where it was BEFORE the website woes. But remember, that same standing was already difficult terrain for the president and Democrats. “These are very, very difficult numbers,” McInturff says. Peter Hart, his Democratic partner on the NBC/WSJ poll, uses a baseball analogy to make a similar point in describing Obama’s slight improvement. “It’s like the difference between from being five runs down, to one or two.” By the way, how do we think we know the president’s improvement in his job rating is coming all from health care? It’s unique in our poll’s history that the president’s overall job rating is better than his individual job ratings on the economy and foreign policy.

Mind the gender gap(and the high-interest gap, too)

Where is Obama’s slight improvement coming from? Answer: Much of it is coming from women. In March, 44% of women approved of the president’s job, and now it’s 49%. Indeed, one of the other big stories from this poll is the continuation of the gender gap. Overall, the NBC/WSJ poll shows that congressional preference is split exactly down the middle -- 45% want a Democratic-controlled Congress, and 45% want a GOP-controlled one. But among women, it’s 51% Democrat, 38% Republican. And among men, it’s 53% Republican, 37% Dem. That gender gap is probably still not wide enough for Democrats to make gains this election season, but it’s potentially wide enough to survive. (Can Republicans really run the table in an election season when they’re losing women by double digits?) And just imagine what the gender gap would be if Hillary’s on the top of the ticket for Democrats in 2016. But if Democrats are benefiting from a gender gap, Republicans are benefiting from a high-interest gap. Among those expressing the highest interest in the midterms (either a 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale), the GOP has a 15-point edge in congressional preference, 53%-38%.

Public wants less of a focus on world affairs

Another headline from our poll: The American public wants less of a focus on international affairs. Per the survey, 47% believe the U.S. should be less active in world affairs -- that’s down from 14% who said this right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, from 32% who said this back in ’97, and from 34% who said this in ’95. Despite Obama’s slight improvement in his overall job rating, he’s hit an all-time low of 38% approving of his handling of foreign policy. And a similar percentage -- 37% -- approve of his handling of the situation between Ukraine and Russia. Is that reflective of how the president has actually handled Russia? Or is it reflective of the fact that HE IS FOCUSING on Russia (when the public wants more attention on domestic affairs)? Our poll suggests it’s likely a little of both.

Down on dynasties

Also in the poll, 69% agree with former First Lady Barbara Bush’s statement that more than two or three families – namely the Bushes and the Clintons – should run for president. Earlier this year, former First Lady Barbara Bush made this remark to C-Span when asked about her son Jeb Bush possibly running for president in 2016: “I think this is a great American country, and if we can’t find more than two or three families to run for high office, that’s silly.” That was similar to a comment she made on NBC’s “Today” a year ago: “It's a great country. There are a lot of great families. It's not just four families, or whatever. There are other people out there that are very qualified. We've had enough Bushes." So it’s telling that nearly 70% of the public agrees with Barbara Bush’s statement, and that represents this potential liability for both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton in 2016 -- the past vs. the future. But the NBC/WSJ poll also finds Hillary Clinton to be more popular than Jeb Bush: 48% of all respondents view Clinton positively, while 32% have a negative opinion about her. By comparison, Bush has an overall net-negative favorable/unfavorable rating at 21% positive, 32% negative. Bush’s numbers have actually gotten worse over the past year as he’s received more ’16 attention (his fav/unfav was at 26%-23% in June 2013). And then there’s this: Bush’s current support among Tea Party Republicans (47%-11%) is lower than Rand Paul’s support (59%-7%).

“I’d like to buy the world a Koch…”

A final set of numbers to chew on in our poll: The conservative Koch Brothers have a 10%-21% fav/unfav rating, with 49% either not sure or not knowing anything about them. But to put that 49% in perspective, 45% say the same about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (who has been a central figure in American politics for a while now). But get this: The Koch Brothers’ name recognition is higher among Democrats than among Republicans or independents. Is this Koch message by Dems all designed to fire up the base? If so, then perhaps those are good numbers. But if hitting the Kochs is meant to be a PERSUASION message, then it’s not working as well. Speaking of McConnell, his fav/unfav in the poll is 8%-23%. But get this: He does better among Tea Party Republicans, 24%-17%. So the good news for McConnell, his shift to the right as been noticed by the Tea Partiers. But while they pump him up, he’s down among non-tea Republicans. And being at an all-time OVERALL low in personal rating at the same time? This only underscores his challenge in a general election (assuming he advances after his May 20 primary): How do you get back in positive territory outside the base?

On the botched execution in Oklahoma

Outside of our new poll, this was some story last night: “A botched execution that used a new drug combination left an Oklahoma inmate writhing and clenching his teeth on the gurney Tuesday, leading prison officials to halt the proceedings before the inmate's eventual death from a heart attack,” the AP reported. “Clayton Lockett, 38, was declared unconscious 10 minutes after the first of the state's new three-drug lethal injection combination was administered. Three minutes later, though, he began breathing heavily, writhing, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow.” The death penalty isn’t the political issue it used to be in the 1980s or 1990s, and states have begun to either eliminate it or slow down executions. The question is if this incident moves the needle in the debate at all.

And on Sterling’s lifetime ban

The other big story yesterday’s was the NBA’s lifetime ban for Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling after his allegedly racist remarks that African Americans shouldn’t attend his team’s basketball games. In the end, that ban was something the basketball league HAD TO DO, especially given that African Americans are some of the NBA’s biggest watchers and consumers. In the end, Donald Sterling was very bad for business.

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