With the 2012 presidential general election just a year away, it’s a good time to look at the national polling and talk about the state of play. Obviously, we have to make allowances for changing circumstances and unexpected events.
The best barometer of how a president is going to fare is his approval rating, which starts taking on predictive value about a year out. As each month goes by, the rating becomes a better indicator of the eventual results. Presidents with approval numbers above 48 to 50 percent in the Gallup Poll win reelection. Those with approval ratings below that level usually lose. If voters don’t approve of the job you are doing after four years in office, they usually don’t vote for you. Of course, a candidate can win the popular vote and still lose the Electoral College. It happened to Samuel Tilden in 1876, Grover Cleveland in 1888, and Al Gore in 2000. But the popular votes and the Electoral College numbers usually come down on the same side.
In his 11th and most recent quarter in office (July 20-Oct. 19), President Obama averaged a 41 percent approval rating among registered voters, according to Gallup. His average for the month of September was the same. For the week of Oct. 17-23, the president’s approval was 41 percent with a disapproval rating of 51 percent. It’s worth noting that in the Oct. 17-23 aggregation of Gallup tracking, Obama’s job-approval rating among independents was only 38 percent. This was a group he carried by 8 percentage points over John McCain in 2008, 52 percent to 44 percent. Among “pure” independents, those who don’t lean toward either party when pushed, the president’s approval rating was 32 percent.
Focusing on the big picture and that target of 48 to 50 percent among the total electorate, if Obama is to win in 2012, he needs to raise his approval rating at least 7 to 9 points. (Obama got some good news on Wednesday when the CBS/New York Times poll, conducted Oct. 19-24, pegged his approval rating at 46 percent—closer to his target.)
Another way to look at the race is to compare how Obama matches up against a generic Republican candidate. The theory is that a president is well-known and well defined, but, at least early on, voters may not have a strong impression of the candidates on the other side. In the latest Gallup generic matchup, taken Oct. 6-9 among registered voters, respondents gave an unnamed Republican 46 percent of the vote; Obama was 8 points back at 38 percent. When undecided voters were “pushed,” or asked if they leaned one way or the other, the GOP margin was still 8 percentage points; the generic Republican candidate pulled 50 percent and Obama received 42 percent. When Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican pollster Bill McInturff tested this question in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken Oct. 6-10, Obama led by a statistically insignificant 2 points, 44 percent to 42 percent.
Then comes the more traditional named ballot test. In the most recent Gallup/USA Today matchup of Obama against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the apparent front-runner for the Republican nomination and by most accounts the most formidable of the GOP candidates, Romney held a statistically insignificant 2-point lead, 49 percent to 47 percent. In the Greenberg poll among likely voters, the race was tied at 45 percent each. The NBC/WSJ survey put Obama ahead of Romney by 2 points, 46 percent to 44 percent. A Pew Research poll in late September-early October came up with 48 percent for each man. A late-September Fox News poll had Obama up by 3 points, 45 percent to 42 percent. A similarly timed CNN survey showed Obama up by 1 point, 49 percent to 48 percent.
If Republicans go with someone other than Romney, the key question will be whether that candidate can compete as well among those independent voters who live between the two partisan 40-yard lines. None of the other major contenders at this point appears likely to meet that test. The GOP’s risk is that although business executive Herman Cain or Texas Gov. Rick Perry are closer to the current ideological center of the GOP, their ability to compete for those independents is highly questionable. With the Republican center having moved considerably to the right in recent years, Romney’s challenge is more among conservatives in his own party than among independent voters.
These numbers certainly don’t show Obama’s reelection fortunes as hopeless, but they paint a very challenging situation. If events and the state of the economy don’t change enough to raise his approval rating and his chances of winning an election that is framed as a referendum on his tenure, he will have to try to turn the contest into a choice between him and the GOP nominee. That will be easier if Republicans nominate an ideologue (and this still might be possible in a matchup with Romney). Recall the 2004 Bush-Cheney reelection campaign when it turned Democratic nominee John Kerry into an ideological weathervane, an unacceptable choice.
As in 2008, the Obama campaign will have a highly organized and effective voter-identification and -turnout operation, but the president still needs to get his approval rating up to, or at least much closer to, that reelection threshold of about 50 percent.
This article appears in the October 29, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.