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What They Told Us: Reviewing Last Week’s Key Polls
Saturday, February 18, 2012

Politics is often a game of inches, especially when you’ve got a contest like this year’s for the White House. Gains in the economy or even perceptions that it’s improving could be enough to get President Obama across the finish line ahead of his Republican opponent.

For the first time in over two years, the number of Americans who believe the economy will be stronger one year from now is slightly higher than the number who expect it to be weaker. Thirty-seven percent (37%) believe the economy will be stronger in one year, up 10 points from November’s all-time low of 27%, while 35% expect it to be weaker a year from now.

The Rasmussen Consumer and Investor Indexes show a continuing gain in confidence among both groups, compared to a year ago.

Thirty-four percent (34%) of Likely U.S. Voters say the country is heading in the right direction. That’s the highest level of optimism since April 2010. Of course, 59% still think the country is heading down the wrong track, but that’s the lowest level of pessimism measured since early September 2009.

By the same token, just 37% say the country’s best days are in the future. Forty-six percent (46%) feel America’s best days are in the past, and 17% are not sure. These numbers have changed little for months.

But Americans are less inclined to believe a 1930s-like depression is in the cards, even if most don’t expect the housing or stock markets to make a full recovery anytime soon.

Forty-six percent (46%) now believe it is possible for anyone who really wants to work to find a job. That’s the highest level of confidence measured since May 2009. Thirty-seven percent (37%) don’t think it’s possible for anyone who wants a job to find employment, down from 42% three months ago and tying the lowest level ever measured. Another 17% are undecided.

Americans’ interest in a new car is slightly higher than it has been over the last two years. Twenty-eight percent (28%) are at least somewhat likely to buy or lease a car in the next year, including 14% who are Very Likely to do so.

Amidst reports that the car industry is experiencing a modest rebound in sales, support for the perennially unpopular government bailouts has risen slightly to 32%, its highest level in three years of regular tracking. Most voters (51%) still think they were a bad idea. At the same time, more Americans than ever (76%) have a favorable opinion of Ford, the one Big Three automaker who didn’t need a taxpayer bailout to stay in business. General Motors is a distant second, with 51% of Americans sharing a favorable opinion of the biggest bailout recipient. Just 43% have a favorable opinion of Chrysler.

Take the gains in economic perception, modest as they may be, and what do you find: The president’s job approval ratings also have been improving in recent weeks, and he now routinely outdistances all of his potential Republican challengers.

At least one group, however, remains unhappy with the president. Catholics strongly disapprove of the job Obama is doing as the debate continues over his administration’s new policy forcing Catholic institutions to pay for contraception they morally oppose.

Outside of Washington, the race to challenge the president in the fall continues to follow its unpredictable course. Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum has now bounced to a 12-point lead over Mitt Romney – 39% to 27% - in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich follows from a distance with 15% of the vote, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul runs last with 10%. Just over a week earlier, it was Romney leading the pack with 34% after his win in the Florida Primary. But then Santorum swept GOP caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota and a non-binding primary in Missouri as Gingrich continued to stumble in the race to be the conservative alternative to Romney.

Perhaps more tellingly, Santorum now trounces Romney 55% to 34% in a one-on-one matchup among likely GOP primary voters. This is the first time any challenger has led Romney nationally in a head-to-head matchup.

Like Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Gingrich before him, Santorum has emerged as the leading anti-Romney candidate and taken the lead in the GOP race. Now the question is will he, unlike his predecessors, be able to hold onto that lead? Scott Rasmussen notes in his latest column that “while it’s impossible to predict what will happen in this volatile election season, the data suggests that Santorum might be more of a challenge for Romney than earlier flavors of the month.”

Next up for the GOP contenders are February 28 primaries in Arizona and Michigan. The Arizona Republican Primary race has tightened dramatically over the past two weeks, but Romney remains in first place with Santorum close behind. Romney earns 39% support to Santorum’s 31%.

In Romney’s native state of Michigan, Santorum now has a 35% to 32% lead over the former Massachusetts governor. That’s an 18-point jump in support for Santorum from less than two weeks earlier. In both upcoming primary states, Gingrich and Paul run far behind.

Ohio is one of the big electoral prizes in the Super Tuesday primaries on March 6, and new numbers out of the Buckeye State should send a chill through the Romney camp. Santorum leads Romney by a near two-to-one margin – 42% to 24% - among likely Ohio Republican Primary voters. Take the other candidates out of the mix, and Santorum leads Romney by even more – 58% to 30%. Still, 47% of these voters say they could yet change their minds.

Voters in Ohio have decidedly mixed feelings about both Obama and Republican Governor John Kasich these days. But the president far outdistances his two likeliest GOP opponents in California and New Mexico.

This November, 33 U.S. Senate seats also will be on the line, and Democrats have more than twice as many seats they now hold at stake compared to seats with Republican incumbents. Rasmussen Reports has stepped up the pace of polling in those states to see how those Senate races are stacking up.

Republican Congressman Connie Mack now runs dead even with incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson in Florida’s 2012 U.S. Senate race, each with 41% support. But Nelson outdistances two other potential GOP challengers, former Senator George LeMieux and businessman Mike McCalister.

The first Rasmussen Reports survey of the U.S. Senate race in New Mexico shows a tight contest between former Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson and her two likeliest Democratic challengers, Martin Heinrich and Hector Balderas.

Republicans hold a modest lead again this week on the Generic Congressional Ballot. Democrats led the GOP for the first time in roughly two-and-a-half years two weeks earlier.

With job approval ratings for the current Congress at all-time lows, more voters than ever see the Republican agenda in Congress as extreme. But voters are only slightly less critical of congressional Democrats.

Most voters still think Republicans and Democrats in Congress are out of touch with their respective party bases, but now they believe it’s more important for the GOP to work with the president than to stand on principle. That’s similar to how the majority felt right after Obama’s election in November 2008, but by January 2010 with hotly contested midterm elections coming in the fall, 53% rated standing for what the party believes in as more important.

The president, for example, in his latest budget released this past week calls for a modest pay increase for federal workers. But 63% of voters believe cutting the federal payroll is better for the economy. Only 18% say giving all federal workers a modest raise is the better option, but just as many (19%) are not sure.

Voters appear to be showing a little less resistance to tax increases, and for the first time ever a majority (52%) would support a candidate who promised to raise taxes only on the wealthy over one who was against all tax increases.

Read this and other reports from Rasmussen

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