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Do Democrats Have a Dodd Problem?

In theory, financial reform is popular. Some 61 percent support stricter regulations on financial companies, according to a March Pew poll. ABC found a similar number, 62 percent, in a poll it conducted in February.

But support drops some, down to 53 percent, if you instead ask people about Congress’s plan to legislate the financial companies, as CNN did in March. And the way that Republicans are acting — with even moderates like Scott Brown now threatening to filibuster the Democrats’ efforts — you’d have to assume that Republicans are reasonably comfortable that they can get the numbers down further.

There hasn’t been any especially recent public polling to say whether they’re right. The fight is a long way from over, and it’s more likely than not that some form of financial regulation will pass. But in terms of public perception, theirs isn’t a bad bet. Given that there is very little agreement among economists on how to address the problem, one imagines that the general public can’t help but feel a bit mystified. And the more the public is confused about an issue, the more opportunity there is for focus-grouped blather to dominate the conversation.

Still, to the extent that the Democrats are struggling to gain traction, it might reflect the messenger as much as the message. The Democrat most associated with the financial reform bill is the retiring senator Chris Dodd. This would seem to be a less-than-ideal choice. The last national poll on Dodd was conducted in March, 2009; it found that just 18 percent of the public had a favrorable view of him against 31 percent unfavorable, and that was at a time when the Democratic brand was still flying pretty high. Meanwhile, Dodd is associated with the AIG bonus mini-scandal, and with accepting some questionable loans from Countrywide. He takes a lot of money from the financial industry and comes from a wealthy state that is home to many hedge funds and insurance companies. And his manner is distinctly senatorial and patrician at a time when bare-bones populism is all the rage.

None of this is especially fair. Dodd took heat over the AIG bonus affair that was disproportionate to his actual influence, and he’s now trying to repair the legacy of a distinguished career that suddenly turned sour on him.

But one wonders if the Republicans would be so bold in opposing the legislation if its champion were a scrappy populist like Sherrod Brown or Jon Tester instead, or a relative unknown like Rhode Island’s Jack Reed (all of whom are on the Senate Banking Committee along with Dodd). With the public looking for navigation beacons to shed light on an area they don’t particularly understand, it may just be too easy to tar Dodd with the bailout brush, and his legislation along with it.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.