There's a Republican candidate who can beat President Obama, except he doesn't exist. The latest Gallup poll has President Obama losing to a generic Republican challenger, but other polls have him beating nearly all the real ones and those expected to throw their hats into the ring.
In the Gallup poll, released late last week, Obama trails a generic Republican challenger by a 5-point margin among registered voters, losing 44 percent to 39 percent. That’s with 18 percent of poll respondents opting for “other/no opinion.” (There was a 4-point margin of error and a sample of 914 registered voters.)
But turn to other organizations that have conducted hypothetical general election matchups and the picture looks much brighter for the president. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted June 3-6, Obama bests Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain by anywhere from 13 points (Romney) to 23 points (Palin). (There was a 3-point margin of error among 1,132 adults.)
NBC News and The Wall Street Journal have Obama leading Romney by 6 points and Pawlenty by 13, the only two candidates they pitted against the president in a June 9-13 poll. (There was a 3.1-point margin of error and 1,000 adults surveyed.)
The results ABC News and The Washington Post released on June 7 hold the lone exception: while Obama beats every other candidate and ties Romney at 47-47 among all adults, the former Massachusetts governor takes a small lead, 49 percent to 46 percent, among registered voters. With that smaller pool, he leads with a range of 6 points, against Gingrich, to 15 points, against Palin. (A 3.5-point margin of error among 1,002 adults.)
Obviously, the numbers aren’t perfect since the samples of each poll don’t align. The NBC/WSJ poll had Obama leading a generic Republican challenger by 5 points compared to Gallup’s 5-point deficit. And Gallup doesn’t do general election matchups this far ahead of an election, on the theory that those polls would be too dependent on name recognition.
Still, there is bad news for Obama in the numbers. Even though he’s beating individual candidates in hypothetical matchups, that Obama could trail a generic Republican reflects an unhappiness with the country’s direction that could drive voters into the arms of Republicans. When thinking about a generic candidate, respondents tend to think of their ideal Republican -- perhaps a Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower melded into a Super Republican. But when they are forced to consider a specific candidate with an actual personality and record and rough edges, Dwight Eisenhower fades and Tim Pawlenty, who never led the liberation of Duluth, much less Europe, comes into focus.
Even though Obama's chances might suffer from diminished enthusiasm among the supporters who voted for him en masse in 2008, the person he faces in November 2012 could have the same problem. But Obama shouldn’t get too comfortable. If the public can dream up a Republican they prefer to their flesh-and-blood president, he’s vulnerable.
George Condon contributed contributed to this article.