Note to Democrats: Don't trust the headlines

The Democratic party's hopes to avoid big losses in the 2014 midterm elections hinge in large part on an improving economy making people less likely to vote against the party that has controlled the White House the last six years.

So you would think Democrats would take heart from the Conference Board reporting this week that its index of consumer confidence rose to 82.3 in March, the highest level since January 2008.

They shouldn't.

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Because the headline number does not tell the real story, which continues to be an electorate deeply worried about the direction of the economy. As we noted earlier this week, Gallup recently found that just 19 percent of Americans rate current U.S. economic conditions as excellent or good, while 34 percent say they are poor. Gallup also found that 44 percent say the economy is getting better while 51 percent say it is getting worse.

So how to explain the Conference Board figure? Turns out while the number did hit a five-year high, it's still pretty terrible.

"We are still pretty weak by historical standards, it's not a confident consumer," said Lynn Franco, top economist at the Conference Board. "It's still very volatile. People are not as negative as they were during the government shutdown but they are by no means very optimistic."

And dig beneath the headline figure and the numbers look much worse.

The percentage of consumers who expect business conditions to improve over the next six months stands at just 18.1 percent. Just 13.9 percent expect the job market to improve and only 14.9 percent expect their incomes to rise. Those are very weak figures that don't promise a great increase in consumer spending.

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Pantheon Macroeconomics' Ian Shepherdson notes that the consumer confidence figures are driven by the current jobless rate and direction of the stock market, telling us relatively little about future behavior.

Surveys such as Gallup's and others offer a broader picture. "They have a more long-term view that captures the echo of the crash and the damage it did to balance sheets, employment and the rest of it," Shepherdson said.

Adding to the Democrats' worries, the University of Michigan reported Friday that its monthly consumer sentiment index dropped to 80 from 81.6 in February, below expectations. The number is still better than it was during the worst of the economic crisis, but it's hardly robust.

The bottom line is that despite some positive-seeming headlines, the state of the U.S. consumer—outside the highly affluent—is quite bad. Personal income is also not rising very fast, suggesting that consumer spending in the first and second quarter will be much softer than the 3.3 percent growth in the fourth quarter.

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So where will the growth that Democrats so desperately need to see come from? It's not likely to be the housing market, which is cooling off as rates and prices nudge up and put purchases out of reach for many.

A worker uses a saw on a roof while building a new home at the Toll Brothers Inc. Baker Ranch community development in Lake Forest, California, Feb. 11, 2014.
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The big hope is that small businesses, long terrified of cataclysm out of Washington, will finally start replacing old equipment. But small business optimism tanked in February to recessionary levels, according to NFIB.

All this could turn around in spring and summer, sparing Democrats huge losses in the fall. But it very well may not, which helps explain why the party is trying to make the election about economic inequality and mean-spirited Republicans blocking a minimum wage hike, equal pay for women and other measures. That may turn out to be their only chance to rile up the base enough to avoid historic losses. But it's not a recipe for long-term success.

—By Ben White. White is POLITICO's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet POLITICO Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.