The NBC-Wall Street Journal's latest national poll was released late Tuesday, and we spent our night -- dork alert! -- poring over the results for clues as to how the electorate is thinking about the county and the two men running for president.
Our eight takeaways from are below. They are in no particular order other than the way we came across them. (You can see the whole questionnaire here if you want to dig through it yourself.)
1. A burst of "right direction" optimism: Nearly four in 10 people said that the country is "headed in the right direction" -- the highest that number has been in NBC-WSJ polling since January 2009. By way of comparison, in NBC-WSJ polling in August, July and June the "right direction" number never rose above 32 percent. Important piece of context: A majority of people -- 55 percent -- still say that things are off on the "wrong track".
2. Obama takes a foreign policy hit: While the poll viewed broadly brings good news for President Obama, one area where he has dipped is on his handling of foreign policy. Fifty-four percent approved of his performance in that area in August, but that number has dipped to 49 percent in the September survey. Disapproval of Obama's foreign policy performance rose from 40 percent in August to 46 percent this month. Those numbers suggest that, while Mitt Romney has taken the brunt of the criticism over his comments on Libya, the ongoing unrest is also doing the incumbent some harm.
3. People l-o-v-e Bill Clinton: The rave reviews for the former President's speech at the Democratic National Convention have sent positive feelings about him through the roof. Thirty-nine percent of those tested said that had a "very positive" feeling toward him, the highest the former president has rated on that question in the history of NBC-WSJ polling. By contrast, 18 percent of people said they had a "very positive" feeling about Romney, while 35 percent said the same of Obama.
4. The "preparedness" question: We have often written that the vote for president is more based on perception and feel than it is one stone cold facts. People want a president who they feel is up to the job of representing the county -- both in domestic and international affairs. A near-majority (47 percent) said Obama is "better prepared to lead the country for the next four years," while 36 percent said the same of Romney. That is not insignificant. At all.
5. Economy improving?: In a bounce similar to the "right direction" improvement noted above, 42 percent of people now believe the economy will get better over the next year, an improvement from the 36 percent who said the same just a month ago. That burst of optimism comes not from those who had previously been pessimistic -- 18 percent in both the August and September NBC-WSJ poll said the economy would get worse -- but rather from movement among those who had previously predicted the status quo (38 percent in August) and now feel more optimistic (32 percent in September).
6. Obama, Romney jump ball on economy: The increased optimism about the future of the economy seems to be benefiting Obama. In August, 43 percent said Romney was better equipped to deal with the economy, while 37 percent chose Obama. In the September survey, each candidate took 43 percent on that question. For Romney to win, he must -- repeat MUST -- open a lead back up on the ability to best handle the economy.
7. Bain not hurting Romney that badly: Just 15 percent of respondents said that the fact that "the company [Romney] headed cut jobs and sent jobs overseas" was one of their biggest concerns about his candidacy. (Interestingly, though, the Bain attack was the thing that concerned Romney supporters most.) What was their biggest concern? One in five said the fact that Romney has the "wrong positions on abortion, contraception and gay marriage" worried them most.
8. Obama as big spender works: Asked the same question of Obama, three in 10 people said that the fact that the incumbent has "significantly increased federal spending and raised the federal debt" was a major concern to them. That number makes clear that there is absolutely a strategic path for Romney to attack Obama effectively -- if he can get himself and his campaign back on message.
Romney borrowed $20 million in August: Romney's campaign is more flush with cash than Obama's, but he was still forced to borrow $20 million in August.
Romney had to borrow the money thanks to an apparent shortage in primary funds. Candidates are only allowed to spend money raised for the general election after they are officially named their party's nominee. That didn't happen for Romney until the end of the month, and in the meantime, Romney has to borrow money.
He retained $15 million of that debt at the end of the month (the report is due by Thursday) and today has $11 million in debt remaining. That debt can only be paid down with money from donors who haven't already contributed the maximum of $2,500 for the primary.
Romney's campaign had $30 million cash on hand at the end of July. When you include the Republican National Committee and a joint fundraising committee between the two, though, he had $185.9 million, compared to $123.7 million for Obama and the Democrats.
A new AP-GfK poll confirms the findings of the latest Gallup poll, with Obama's convention bounce disappearing and him falling to 47 percent, with Romney at 46 percent.
In a visit with David Letterman on Tuesday, Obama wasn't laughing much and took aim at Romney's "47 percent" comment.
The pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action is up with a new ad on the "47 percent" comment.
Romney just got his first intelligence briefing.
Another poll shows Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) gaining in the Wisconsin Senate race.
The Democratic super PAC Majority PAC is up with a new ad against former senator George Allen (R-Va.)
The super PAC that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on former Missouri state treasurer Sarah Steelman's (R) failed Senate primary campaign is now running ads for Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.).
A new automated SurveyUSA poll in Washington shows Snohomish County Councilman John Koster (R) leading Democrat Suzan delBene 46 percent to 42 percent in the race for former congressman Jay Inslee's (D) seat.
Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) faces more trouble from the House ethics committee.
"Thurston Howell Romney" -- David Brooks, New York Times
"Romney video shows collapse of private spaces" -- Craig A. Timberg and David Nakamura, Washington Post
"Romney faces twofold challenge in getting campaign back on track" -- Karen Tumulty, Washington Post
"Wisconsin Offers View of Challenges Confronting Romney" -- Jeff Zeleny and Marjorie Connelly, New York Times