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Democrats Fall Back to Earth With a Thud

WASHINGTON - Barack Obama and the Democrats have come back to earth - hard.

Republican wins in the Virginia and New Jersey governors' races Tuesday and recent polling and economic trends reveal a political landscape that has changed dramatically since the president's convincing election victory a year ago.

Democrats on Tuesday did win a New York congressional seat they hadn't held since the 19th century, in large measure because it became a proxy fight between warring factions in the Republican Party.

But independents, the voters who often decide elections, shifted heavily to Republicans in Virginia and New Jersey. That trend, if it holds in 2010, could be very bad news for Democrats trying to hold a 60-40 advantage in the Senate and a 258-177 lead in the House of Representatives.

Anxious independent voters are starting to listen to GOP attacks on government spending and Democratic health reform proposals.

Meanwhile, Republicans' most loyal supporters are stirring at the grassroots level.

"All that intensity that the Democrats had in 2006 and 2008 has transferred over to the Republicans," said political analyst Charlie Cook.

Democrats still have the power of Obama's personal appeal and fundraising abilities. But Democrats are likely losing sleep over these trends:

- Obama's job approval, while still above 50 percent in most polls, has dropped the most among older people, who are more likely to vote in non-presidential elections than younger Americans. A Gallup Poll conducted Oct. 19-25 showed that Obama's approval among Americans 18-29 had fallen only from 66 percent to 61 percent, but that he had dropped 12 points among Americans 50-64.

Cook, citing his two children in their late teens and early 20s who were big Obama supporters, said that "their loyalty is to him, not the Democratic Party."

With Obama not on the ballot in 2010, how many of these kinds of supporters will vote?

- Americans' personal economic outlook remains grim. In a poll taken for Business Week Nov. 1-3, RT Strategies and YouGov.com found that 37 percent of Americans believed the economy was getting worse compared with 23 percent saying it was getting better.

The poll was taken while the government and economists were declaring the end of the recession. Almost four in 10 said they believed if they lost their jobs they would be unable to match their current income, and more than half of the 1,000 poll respondents said they either had no savings or had enough to live on for only a few weeks.

Americans are "still trying to figure out how we are going to live our lives in this new (economic) environment, and it is obviously going to affect politics," said Thomas Riehle, president of RT Strategies.

He said the last time the public was this pessimistic was the late 1970s, "when Jimmy Carter went on television to talk about the great malaise."

- USA TODAY-Gallup found that the percentage of Americans who said they believed Obama would heal political divisions in the country - a campaign pledge - was about half of what it was a year ago. Only 28 percent said they believed he would be able to do that in a poll taken Oct. 16-19, while 54 percent had said so last Nov. 7-9, just after Obama was elected.

- The president has fallen especially hard on questions about whether he can improve the health care system and control federal spending, two issues that have joined jobs to dominate domestic headlines this year.

Last November, according to USA TODAY-Gallup, 52 percent said they had confidence that Obama would control federal spending, but only 31 percent said so in the Oct. 16-19 survey. Over the same period, those who said they believed Obama could improve the health care system dropped from 64 to 46 percent.

The president also has gotten a more definite ideological label in his first year in office. A year ago, 43 percent of Americans described Obama as liberal or very liberal. In October, according to USA TODAY-Gallup, 54 percent did.

Riehle said half of the 1,000 adults he polled earlier this week said they were worse off financially than they were a year ago.

"A year ago we were in the red hot center of the financial collapse," Riehle said, "and this is how it's played out in a year."

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