The most recent NBC/WSJ poll has some Democrats feeling optimistic about their chance in November. Obama pollster Joel Benenson plays up the highlights:

• Today’s NBC/Wall St. Journal poll underscores the fact that with fewer than 90 days until the mid-term elections, the Republican Party’s standing is at one of its lowest points ever and its competitive position vs. the Democrats looks much as it did in the summers of 1998 and 2002, neither of which were “wave” elections.

• The NBC/WSJ poll shows that not only is the Republican Party’s image at its lowest point ever in their polling, their ratings are still lower than Democrats and their party image has worsened much more than the Democrats when compared with the last mid-term elections in 2006.

• Only 24% of Americans gave the Republicans a positive rating while 46% were negative for a net of -22 (28% were neutral). This positive rating is not only a historic low, it is down 9 points since May – just three months ago.
o In addition, in July of 2006, a year in which Republicans lost 30 seats, their rating stood at 32% positive, 39% negative for only a -7 net rating or a change in the net rating of -15. During the same period the Democratic rating slipped only slightly by a net of -4 points from 32/39 in July 2006 to 33/44 today.

Newsweek also portrays this as good news. I'm not seeing it. First of all, keep in mind that the single biggest problem the Democrats have is the turnout gap. Republican constituencies are more likely to turn out in midterm elections in general. And Republicans are far more enthusiastic about voting than Democrats (though the gap could well narrow somewhat by November.) The combination of those two factors portends an electorate far more Republican than the one that voted in 2008.

The NBC/WSJ poll does not attempt to suss out likely voters. It's not even limited to registered voters. It's a poll of all adults. That gives it a nice, small-d democratic value as a gauge of the opinion of the citizenry, but it's not a good measure of the people who will be voting this fall.

Second, Democrats can take some comfort in the fact that Americans still like their party a lot more than they like Republicans. But there's not much evidence to believe that people vote on the basis of a straight comparison between the parties. They hold the incumbent party responsible for conditions, and will vote for an even less popular out party.

The polls have shown all year long that the Democrats are more popular and more trusted than the Republicans. But on the question of which party you plan to vote for, the results look like this:

It may not be fair, but that's the way it works.