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First Thoughts: What change do voters want?

New NBC/WSJ poll identifies the change that voters want -- and don’t want… GOP’s generic-ballot lead narrows from nine points (49%-40%) to three (46%-43%)… Still, overall political dynamics point to substantial GOP gains in November… For the first time, a majority (53%) thinks free-trade agreements hurt the U.S… Is the Tea Party just re-branded conservative GOP primary voters?... Bill Clinton’s comeback and Sarah Palin’s and Nancy Pelosi’s fall… VCI update: -39… First on First Read: new Dem TV ad hitting Kasich in Ohio… Wrapping up the Brown-Whitman debate… Previewing PA-15… And new WaPo poll has O’Malley up 11 points.

*** What change do voters want? With our new NBC/WSJ poll showing that 59% think the country is on the wrong track, that 65% believe the economy will either get worse or stay the same in the next 12 months, and that a whopping 73% disapprove of Congress, it’s clear that voters still want change. But what kind of change? Well, the poll asked registered voters to indicate whether 13 different outcomes on Election Day were acceptable or unacceptable. The most acceptable outcomes: reducing influence of special interests (70% acceptable), electing political outsiders (69%), Republicans taking over the majority in Congress (52%), Democrats continuing to hold the majority (51%), and repealing the health-care law (51%).

*** What change do voters NOT want? And here are the most unacceptable outcomes: Palin becoming the GOP’s leading spokesperson (55% unacceptable), Pelosi continuing as speaker (51%), the Democrats continuing to hold the majority in Congress (42%), and the Tea Party becoming a major force in Congress (41%). If some of these results seem somewhat contradictory, well, they are. But these two lists do give you a gauge -- however imperfect -- what voters want and what they don’t. Here’s a final set of numbers: 41% said it’s an acceptable outcome if President Obama is dealt a setback in the midterms, while an identical 41% said it would be unacceptable, which is just more evidence that November will be more of a referendum on the economy and Washington than on the president.

*** Natural tightening: The new poll also shows some tightening in the battle for control of Congress. Among likely voters, Republicans hold a three-point edge in the generic ballot (46%-43%), down from the GOP's nine-point lead last month (49%-40%). The narrowing is due, in part, to African Americans and Hispanics increasing their interest level. But young voters -- whom Obama was courting in Madison, WI last night -- are sitting on the sidelines, with just 35% expressing a high interest in voting (compared with 65% for seniors). Despite the tightening, though, the overall political dynamics (pessimism about the economy, dissatisfaction at Congress) remain the same, which foreshadows a tough night for the party in power. “I still think you’re looking at a very difficult year for the Democrats,” said NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R). Here's something to ponder: According to the 2008 exit polls, over 50% of the electorate was UNDER the age of 50. If our likely voter model is correct (and we are pretty confidence in it), over 50% of the electorate this year will be OVER the age of 50.

*** For the first time, a majority says free trade hurts the U.S.: Here's another fascinating result from our poll: 53% believe that free trade agreements have hurt the U.S -- up from 46% in '07 and 30% in '99. And get this: The opposition is shared by 65% of union households and 61% of Tea Party supporters. The survey also finds that outsourcing will be a potent Dem attack this fall. A whopping 68% say they strongly agree with the statement that the U.S. economy is struggling because companies are outsourcing their work and manufacturing to other countries. That’s a higher percentage than those strongly agreeing that corporations are too focused on profits and not on hiring (53%), that health-care costs are too high (46%), that the country’s education system is producing fewer skilled and educated workers (40%), and that the nation has lost its technological edge in manufacturing (36%). So get ready for the Dem TV ads blasting free trade and outsourcing… By the way, for those predicting that free trade agreements will be the easiest bipartisan agreements between a Republican Congress and Obama, think again: There's a bipartisan coalition forming on trade, but it's against it.

*** Making sense of the Tea Party: The poll also gives us a better idea of the Tea Party, with 27% saying they support the movement. These folks, it turns out, are more conservative and bigger watchers of FOX News than your typical Republican. Per McInturff, Tea Party members are simply re-branded conservative GOP primary voters -- not something completely new. “These are conservative Republicans who watch FOX, and who are very ticked off,” he said.

*** Bubba's comeback... : Who is the most popular political figure in our poll? It’s none other than Bill Clinton, who just two years ago was being blamed (in part) for his wife losing the Democratic presidential nomination. His fav/unfav is 55%-23%, which is higher than Obama’s (47%-41%), Huckabee’s (26%-25%), Boehner’s (14%-17%), McConnell’s (12%-18%), Romney’s (21%-30%), Gingrich’s (24%-35%), Reid’s (15%-32%), Palin’s (30%-48%), and Pelosi’s (22%-50%). One of the main reasons for Clinton’s positive score is that he no longer remains a GOP target, despite everything the party did and said during the 90s. In the survey, 47% of Republicans view the ex-president negatively, compared with 78% (!!!) who view Obama negatively.

*** … And Palin's and Pelosi's fall: Speaking of Palin and Pelosi, no two political figures are more unpopular -- especially when you add the 55% who say it’s unacceptable that Palin become the GOP’s leading spokesperson, and the 51% who say it’s unacceptable that Pelosi continue as House speaker. The Pelosi numbers are definitely worth watching. Has she become the face of the Washington voters do NOT like? The GOP has spent months using her as a punching bag in TV ads. Notice how it's MORE unacceptable to voters for Pelosi to remain as speaker than for Democrats to keep Congress. Then again, ditto with Boehner and the Republican majority. Still, the negatives for Pelosi are much higher than for Boehner.

*** VCI update: With our new NBC/WSJ poll, the current VCI for the month of September is now -39.

*** First on First Read -- new Dem TV ad in Ohio: Building a Stronger Ohio, a Democratic independent expenditure group led by the Democratic Governors Association, is up with a new TV ad in the Buckeye State hitting GOP gubernatorial nominee John Kasich for his work for Lehman Brothers. “Why does it matter that John Kasich was a managing director at Lehman Brothers?” the ad states. “Because when he was a congressman, he used his influence to help Wall Street. Then Kasich left Congress, and Wall Street helped him get rich.”

*** Wrapping up the Brown-vs.-Whitman debate: Here’s the Los Angeles Times’ take on last night’s debate: “In a blustery and vigorous first debate, gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown dueled Tuesday over their differing solutions to California's dire problems, with Whitman slighting Brown as a tool of labor unions and Brown excoriating her as a billionaire running for office to benefit the rich... After Democrat Brown said he would bring all parties together, Republican Whitman seized on his vow. 'Mr. Brown talked about bringing people together,' she said. 'It will be a meeting of all the special interests and the unions who are there to collect their IOUs from the campaign that they have funded.' Brown, the attorney general, responded with a jab at Whitman's proposed eradication of the capital gains tax, a move he said was 'targeted to billionaires like Ms. Whitman and millionaires.'"

*** 75 House races to watch: PA-15: The GOP nominee is three-term incumbent Charlie Dent, while his Dem challenger is Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan. In 2008, Obama won this district – which represents Allentown – with 56%, and Kerry won it with 50% in ’04. As of June 30, Dent had more than $1 million in the bank, and Callahan had nearly $1 million. Dent voted against the stimulus, cap-and-trade, and health care. Cook rates the race as Lean Republican, while Rothenberg has it Republican Favored.

*** More midterm news: In California, Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina face off in a radio debate… In Maryland, a new Washington Post poll shows Martin O’Malley (D) leading Bob Ehrlich among likely voters, 52%-41%... And in Nevada, comedian Dennis Miller is headlining a fundraiser for Sharron Angle on Saturday.
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 34 days

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