Michael Luo's Friday "Political Memo" on allegedly rising Democratic prospects, "Democrats See Sign of Hope in Job Trends," shows the Times not just clutching for straws of Democratic hope for 2010, but scrambling in the dirt for them.
Luo's front-page optimism is based on analysis of state and local economic data compiled by Moody's Analytics at the request of the Times. Incidentally, Moody's chief economist is Mark Zandi, who now advises congressional Democrats and is a strong believer in Obama's economic "stimulus."
A struggling economy has historically meant trouble for the president's party in midterm elections. So it comes as no surprise that Democrats are girding for a tough November.
They should be. The economy is slowly recovering but remains on its sickbed, and most signs still point to a rough cycle for the party. Political analysts expect Republicans to make gains - possibly significant ones - in Congress in November, threatening to retake the House and maybe even the Senate.
But digging deeper, beyond the national numbers, reveals at least a few glimmers of hope for Democrats - still fairly distant and faint, but bright enough to get campaign strategists scanning the horizon and weighing the odds.
That is because different parts of the country are recovering at different rates - and, in a bit of electoral good luck for the Democrats, some of the areas that are beginning to edge upward more quickly, like parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, happen to be in important battlegrounds for the House and the Senate.
"A lot of the trend lines are turning positive in many of these contested areas," said Mark Zandi, a chief economist for Moody's Analytics. "It really boils down to: Is there enough time for the trend lines to trump the still pretty difficult conditions in the minds of the voters?"
Zandi, who advised John McCain during the 2008 campaign, now advises congressional Democrats, supports higher deficit spending, and argued in the Times in March that "Halving the stimulus would have resulted in a measurably worse economy today..."
A detailed examination of House and Senate seats in play, alongside state and local economic data compiled by Moody's Analytics for The New York Times, yields some surprising bits of encouragement for Democrats but also adds color to the overall daunting picture confronting the party. At the very least, any such signs of hope are certain to affect the strategies being worked out now in campaigns.
About a quarter of the House races The Times expects to be competitive in metropolitan areas that are projected by Moody's to have had positive, albeit mostly modest, after-tax personal income growth between 2009 and 2010. They include several swing districts in upstate New York that have long struggled economically but largely escaped the real estate bubble.
The picture is grimmer for Democrats when it comes to the 17 Senate races that are expected to be in play. Only one state on the list, Connecticut, is projected to have experienced disposable income growth from 2009 to 2010. On the other hand, all but one state, Nevada, are predicted by Moody's to experience job gains between the fourth quarter of 2009 and the fourth quarter of 2010.
Unfortunately for Democrats, important Senate battlegrounds like Nevada - where the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, is fighting for his political life - and Florida are predicted to be among the last to begin experiencing steady employment growth, with economists not forecasting consistent increases until late 2010 or early 2011.
In the end, however, the ultimate deciding factor will be voters' perceptions - not how well the economy is actually doing, but how well voters believe it is doing.
With communities climbing from such dire straits, it remains to be seen whether modest economic gains will be enough.
"Enough..." to do what? Elect Democrats? Why would that be important to the Times?
Byron York of the Washington Examiner is not convinced, judging by the headline over his Friday poll analysis: "Obama and Dems heading for electoral disaster."
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