FORTUNE — President Barack Obama now enjoys a firm lead in both national and key battleground polls over Mitt Romney — an edge analysts are chalking up in part to improving confidence in the economic recovery.
That optimism stands at a two-and-a-half-year high, according to an Allstate /National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll released on Friday. But even if more people think things are headed in the right direction, at 35% of the population, they’re still far outnumbered by the pessimists. (An NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll earlier in the week found 39% who believe we’re on the right track, while 55% say we’re on the wrong track.)
How can only roughly a third of the country believe we’re headed in the right direction, while fully half are committed to reelecting the President? Is Obama’s team running that tight a ship, or could Romney’s recent stumbles be weighing his campaign down that much? The performances of the campaigns — and judgments about the candidates themselves — are certainly factors, but they don’t explain the full picture.
While the right track/wrong track measure has become political handicappers’ shorthand for attitudes about the economy, in fact it’s a dragnet that hauls in all sorts of unrelated judgments, like cultural values, that have nothing to do with assessments of the recovery’s trajectory. “We put way too much focus on it, because it’s really an amalgam of things,” says John Anzalone, a pollster for Democratic candidates.
But even asking voters a more focused version of the question may yield confusing results. That’s because in the heat of the election season, voters tend to process economic news through a partisan filter, rather than the inverse. So pro-Obama voters see conditions improving, while Romney supporters see them deteriorating.
The pattern has been born out in recent surveys: a poll released Friday by the political consulting firm Purple Strategies found that among those who believe the economy is getting stronger, Obama leads 94% to 4%, while those who think it’s getting worse favor Romney, 86% to 8%.
Anzalone says he favors cutting through the noise by framing the question in personal terms, asking voters if they feel better off now than four years ago — and, significantly, if they think they will be in better shape in the future. Republicans made some hay last month by catching the Obama campaign and its surrogates flat-footed on the are-you-better-off formulation, but there’s been an odd dearth of national polling asking voters to consider where they see themselves headed.
One mid-August survey by FTI Communications — which conducted the Heartland Monitor poll — put a series of just those kinds of personal, forward-looking questions to 1,200 respondents. The results were far rosier than 43 months of national unemployment above 8% would suggest. A year from now, 82% expect their personal financial situation will stay the same or improve, while 10% predict it will decline. A majority — 51% — said they expect to be in a higher class at some point in the future, compared to 44% who said that was unlikely. And respondents were even more bullish for their children, with 80% expecting their offspring to be in the same or higher economic class at their age and only 13% holding a grimmer outlook.
A June poll by the Pew Research Center asked similar questions and found a disconnect between peoples’ judgments about the economy broadly and their own likely performance in it. Only 34% said national economic conditions would be better in a year (50% said they’d stay the same, and 11% said they’d be worse). But 63% said they expect their personal finances to improve — up from 60% in January, and 56% in June 2011.
There’s a psychological distortion at work that helps explain the phenomenon. “In general, we have an optimism bias,” says Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and professor of business ethics at the NYU Stern School of Business. “People see themselves as being smarter, better, luckier than average. And they are wildly optimistic about their futures, certainly in America.”
Whether and to what degree our hard-wired sunniness pads the advantage incumbent presidents enjoy isn’t clear. Chris Wlezien, a political scientist at Temple University who just coauthored a book that examines how economic perceptions shape elections, argues voters place a much heavier emphasis on recent history in making up their minds. And in his modeling of modern presidential contests, he found the perception of the economy’s performance broadly over the course of the year before the election was the best predictor of who’d actually win, rather than voters’ sense of their own disposition.
But voters’ expectations that things will get better for them undeniably shape the campaigns themselves. “It can’t be all doom and gloom,” says pollster David Winston, who advises Republican candidates. “People are unhappy with where they are but they aren’t willing to play 52-card pickup with the economy. They want to see what the alternative is.”