Belief That America’s on the ‘Wrong Track’ Doesn’t Necessarily Help Trump

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Voting in Maine
Are these people grumpy? Does it really matter? Photo: David Leaming/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Earlier this week, Karl Rove was in the mood to gloat. Enjoying the Bernie or Bust tensions on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, the Boy Genius said it didn’t really matter whether Democrats got their act together in Philadelphia, because they are largely doomed by the negative feelings of the electorate about the direction of the country, as noted in The Wall Street Journal:

Mrs. Clinton’s [big] problem is that she personifies the status quo in a year when the dynamic is strongly tilted toward change.Gallup reported last week that only 17% of Americans are satisfied with the country’s condition, the same figure as at this point in 2008.

A July 13 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that a mere 18% of registered voters believe the country is “headed in the right direction,” while 73% said things are “off on the wrong track.”

True enough; the “wrong track” numbers have spiked this month, probably in response to the various incidents of violence here and in Europe in recent days. But if everyone really hates the status quo, why is President Obama’s job-approval rating at or above 50 percent (you know, about where George W. Bush’s rating was when he was reelected in 2004)?

Nate Cohn addressed the seeming contradiction at the Upshot today, and noted that “wrong track” numbers don’t always have the sort of clear political import, unlike the sitting president’s approval ratings:

Historically, the president’s approval rating is the more important piece of data. It’s a very good predictor of the result of presidential elections. Only two candidates — Richard Nixon in 1960, and Gerald Ford in 1976 — have lost the popular vote when the incumbent president had a positive approval rating heading into the campaign season. Those were the two of the three closest races of the 20th century. The third, 1968, featured a president with an approval rating just a bit underwater.

At best, knowing the right-track/wrong-track number has added no predictive value beyond what the president’s approval rating and the state of the economy provide. At worst, it can mislead — as it did in 2000, 2004 and 2012.

Yep. One of the reasons for irrational optimism among Democrats in 2004 was the belief that undecided voters, who had high “wrong-track” numbers that year, would “break” heavily against the incumbent on Election Day. Didn’t happen. A similar illusion helped Republicans brainwash themselves into visions of victory in 2012.

“Wrong-track” sentiment could well undermine a candidate of the party controlling the White House who was running on a straight status quo message, much like the Republicans who struggled to admit the economy was crashing in 2008. As anyone listening to Hillary Clinton’s speech last night can attest, she’s very focused on championing change. Yes, Trump’s message represents an effort to identify strongly with Americans who hate everything they see around them. But those are a subset of “wrong track” voters, many of whom do not share Trump’s tendency to blame “losers” at home and abroad for our problems.

So Cohn’s advice is to keep looking at Obama’s approval ratings and other “fundamentals,” and not get too caught up in measuring the “Mood of America.” As I always like to say when people get all agitated over levels of “enthusiasm,” votes do not count differently based on the attitude of voters. I’m sure Hillary Clinton will accept a victory given her by dyspeptic voters even if Karl Rove doesn’t think that makes sense.