Frank presents an illuminating set of numbers that look at how the right direction – wrong track numbers have changed in the past year. I’ll add some discussion of what these numbers mean, their importance, and the potential consequences which they portend.

Political scientists have argued that people vote based upon their own level of individual satisfaction with the nation. There are four factors that play into this concept:

1) Approval of the president’s performance. I’ll write more about this concept in a later thread that Frank and I are preparing, but generally, research shows that (outside of events) presidential popularity is expected to decline at a fairly steady rate following the ’honeymoon period.’ There are noisy arguments among us what ‘steady rate’ means, but that’s sort of mumbo-jumbo to normal people.
2) Approval of Congress’ performance. This tends to be more important in the years when both Congress and the President are of the same party since it is easier for individuals to choose sides for giving credit-blame in these circumstances.
3) National economic performance. Why this is important, I think says a lot about Americans’ psyche. The implication of this is that if you’re unemployed, or not doing well financially, but most people are, you sort of put the onus upon yourself. If a lot of people are not doing well, you blame the government, even if you’re doing okay. This differentiates us from a lot of western cultures in a pretty good way, I think.
4) Right direction-wrong track. This is, in my mind, a representation of what we call retrospective analysis. So, for example, say I started 2008 with $250,000 saved, and figured I would have $300,000 saved by the end of the year. If instead, I had $150,000, I’d be pretty mad, and say we were on the wrong track.
So, the implication of the right direction-wrong track numbers is that they are an important variable that helps determine how individuals vote. To get some longer term idea of these numbers, in 1994, the right direction-wrong track numbers were at 37-57. So, if these numbers are static for the next 3 months, we can expect that there will be political ramifications that are unfavorable to the Democratic candidates.

What causes this set of numbers to be so bad in a historic context? As I said above, people start out with expectations for the direction the economy will go, and the direction that political elites move the nation. I believe that people who gave Obama support initially believed that he would take the nation in a different direction than had President Bush. He did three things that induced people to change their attitudes:
1) Catering-caving in to the investment banks and the big auto companies. This is something that drives a lot of people (me included) crazy…especially since the investment banks are the institutions that caused our economic problems, to a great extent. These events began happening in March and in June respectively.
2) The incident with Professor Gates and the police, and Obama’s unforced error in deciding to make this a local incident worth intervening. This happened at the end of July, and, my guess is, caused a lot of people to regard Obama in a different manner.
3) Foreign policy. This, at a time when we’re fighting two wars, goes on throughout the twelve month period. I think the important factors for the right direction-wrong track numbers are that some percentage of people expected us to withdraw from one or both conflicts, and are disappointed that we have not.

Can/will these numbers be changed positively for the Democrats? Well, they have 3-6 months to try, after that it is too late to do anything other than hope for a punctuated equilibrium (like another 9/11 attack, God forbid) to affect the change. Assuming my 3 causes are accurate (and who knows if they are), they have to somehow convince Americans that they are as interested in their lives as they are in those who are wealthy, and make some efforts to either succeed in the war efforts or get us out. I think the Gates incident cannot be repaired.