Ron Brownstein is one of the sharpest analysts we have, and he's written today on a poll commissioned by his employer, National Journal, that asked a lot of interesting questions that other polls don't ask and came up with one answer in particular that explains a lot about this race. Greg Sargent flagged it earlier.
The poll asked people if they were better off, worse off, or in about the same shape they were four years ago. Brownstein:
That question divides likely voters almost exactly in thirds: in the poll, 31 percent say they are better off than four years ago, while 34 percent say they are worse off and 34 percent say they are about the same. Romney, predictably, wins more than four-fifths of voters who say they are worse off; the president, equally unsurprisingly, attracts almost nine in 10 of those who consider themselves better off.
Crucially, though, Obama holds a commanding 57 percent to 34 percent advantage among those who say their finances are unchanged. One reason for that critical tilt in his direction: Voters who say their finances are unchanged also say, by a resounding 53 percent to 33 percent margin, that they believe the country has been better off over these past four years because Obama, rather than another candidate, won in 2008.
Overall, 48 percent say they believe the country is better off because Obama won in 2008, while 41 percent say the nation would be in a stronger position today if another candidate had won.
Aha. So this tells us why the old Reagan "are you better off?" question isn't resonating as deeply as the Romney people hoped and one might have thought.
I guess this means, as Greg suggests, that a decent percentage of people actually do accept the idea that things could have been worse, maybe a lot worse. So at least 57 percent of 34 percent are capable of managing an abstract thought and drawing sensible conclusions from it. Naturally enough, they lean Democratic!