In Fact, Obama is Stronger Than He Looks

Lately, whenever I note a poll showing good results for President Barack Obama, I feel compelled to include a note about the reliability of polls this far out from the election—they're not particularly reliable—and the fact that other presidents who have been polling well have nonetheless gone down in defeat come November. The most salient example for this is President George H.W. Bush, who rode high in public opinion after the Gulf War, but was brought down by a rapidly deteriorating economy. It has never been hard to imagine a similar trajectory for Obama; the post-Osama bump, followed by a prolonged slide.

On the other side of things, and to make another analogy to the 1992 election, Mitt Romney isn’t the only presidential candidate to finish a divisive primary with high unfavorability ratings, nor is he the only one to inspire distrust among his base. Bill Clinton faced a similar scenario, and he went on to defeat the first President Bush in the fall.

Both sets of facts are important to point out, if only to highlight the uncertainty of forecasting a presidential election that's months away. But, at the risk of sounding banal, each presidential election is unique, and is shaped by its own set of facts and circumstances.

To wit, the 1992 analogy for President Obama only holds if you focus your attention on head-to-head matchups. According to the latest survey from CNN, Obama leads Mitt Romney by double-digits, 54 percent to 43 percent. Likewise, at this point in 1992, Bush led Clinton by 9 points—52 percent to 43 percent—in poll conducted by USA Today and CNN. At the same time, it’s also true that his job-approval ratings were on the downslope. According to Gallup, Bush’s approval rating had reached 42 percent by the end of March, and would dip to 39 percent by the beginning of April. By contrast, Obama’s approval ratings have been on the upswing—from an average of 42 percent in September 2011 to a current average of 47.9 percent.

Other differences also become apparent when you look beyond the surface of the analogy. By this point in 1992, Bush’s approval with Republicans was at 68 percent, and his approval with independents was at 38 percent. Obama, on the other hand, maintains 82 percent approval with Democrats, and 43 percnt approval with independents. In a poll released on March 3, 1992, the New York Times and CBS News found that Americans gave “unnamed, idealized Democratic President the edge over Mr. Bush in a number of areas”:

When asked whether Mr. Bush or a Democratic President would be “more likely to care about the needs and problems of people like you,” 52 percent said the Democrat would, while 29 percent said Mr. Bush would. When asked who would be most likely to end the recession, 43 percent said a Democratic President, while 30 percent cited Mr. Bush.

Obama doesn’t have this problem. According to the most recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of Americans say that Obama “understands the needs of people like you,” compared to 44 percent for his likely competitior, Mitt Romney. Only 43 percent approve of his handling of the economy, but that’s 25 points above where George H.W. Bush was at this time of the ear.

As for Romney, the comparison to Bill Clinton doesn’t hold up as well as it looks. Ignoring, for a moment, that Clinton was—and is—a more skillfull politician than the former Massachusetts governor, Romney is simply more unpopular with Republicans than Clinton ever was with Democrats. Indeed, Romney will have to rally the base of the Republican Party in a way that alienates general election voters—a dilemma Clinton never had to face.

All of this is to say that, at this point, there are enough differences between now and then for the 1992 analogy to lose some of its power as a cautionary tale. That doesn’t mean that we should accept all new poll results as indicative of what will happen in November, but that—for now at least—we can look to Obama and say that he’s in pretty good shape.

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