Here's a striking finding from Gallup today. For the first time in more than five years, more Americans say that they're better off financially than worse off, compared with a year ago. Here's the chart:
Notice that the number of Americans who say that they're worse off than a year ago starts to decline sharply around January of 2012. Why would that be? Economic growth has been positive but fairly tepid this year. It's not as if the economy in 2012 is overwhelmingly better than the economy in 2011.
There's another possible explanation. The poll shows a huge partisan split in how Americans view the economy. Democrats are much more likely to say that they're better off, while Republicans are much more likely to say that they're worse off:
The political implications of this question are not lost on respondents, who answer in a highly partisan fashion. Six in 10 Democrats (62%) say they are better off than they were a year ago, compared with 34% of independents and 16% of Republicans.
By the same token, few Democrats, 9%, say they are worse off, but 40% independents hold this view, as do the majority of Republicans (55%).
We've seen this in a few other recent economic surveys as well. Consumer confidence has been surging of late, but mainly because more Democrats feel upbeat about the economy. The presidential race appears to be skewing perceptions a bit. (Granted, the causation could, in theory, run in the other direction--that is, people are becoming Democrats because they're doing well financially under Obama, but political scientists have found that partisan preferences mostly stay stable.)
Related: Read my colleague Neil Irwin's take on the other split in the U.S. economy--consumers are feeling upbeat while businesses still sound gloomy. He's got a number of theories for why.